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How do you assign new values to 205,000 properties after 20 years? A look inside Delco revaluation

In a process aimed at eliminating inequities, each property in Delaware County will be assigned a new assessment for the first time in two decades. Tyler Technologies, the company hired to complete the work, will use computer data, site visits, and recent sales to do the work.

Dean Pappas of Lansdowne speaks with Russell Place, a data collector for Tyler Technologies, the company contracted by Delaware County to reassess every property in the county. The company is reviewing properties and making site visits to give every property a new value that will take effect in 2021.
Dean Pappas of Lansdowne speaks with Russell Place, a data collector for Tyler Technologies, the company contracted by Delaware County to reassess every property in the county. The company is reviewing properties and making site visits to give every property a new value that will take effect in 2021.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Dean Pappas has happily called Lansdowne home for more than 30 years. One thing he's not happy about, however, is his tax bill.

"Let me just laugh," he said when asked about his property taxes. "Everything else about Lansdowne we love."

But Pappas, a retired business systems analyst for Independence Blue Cross, whose two-story stone house has an annual tax bill of nearly $7,000, allowed data collectors to measure and ask questions about his property when they knocked on his door Wednesday as part of Delaware County's reassessment project.

Each of the more than 200,000 properties in the county will be assigned a new assessment for the first time in two decades. Assessments, which are the estimated property values that counties, school districts, and municipalities use to calculate tax bills, will be updated to capture current market value, or the amount at which someone could sell a property.

The new appraisals likely will have a dramatic impact on tax bills. Lansdowne residents, for example, are burdened with some of the highest tax rates in the region. Half the homeowners could see increases in their new school and town levies — some significant — based on an analysis of state data by the Inquirer and Daily News. About half would get reductions.

The process is aimed at equalizing tax burdens, making residents' bills fairer. But reassessments are politically unpopular, as they create winners and losers.

Over time, assessments tend to become more inaccurate as measures of value. Assessments are fixed in time; property values are not, and rates of appreciation vary radically from town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood.

"We're redistributing the equity among the property owners," said Mary Noldy, project supervisor for the firm hired to conduct the Delaware County reassessment. "People are fearful. Everyone thinks their value will go up. Likely their value will increase, but that doesn't mean their taxes will increase."

A judge ordered the reassessment last year. But Pappas said he didn't know about it until someone knocked on his door.

"That's a new one," he said before a data collector used a tape measure and laser to take measurements of his house.

Pappas is among a select group of homeowners receiving in-person visits before the new values are issued in 2020.

A countywide revaluation is a large and expensive project — and one that most Pennsylvania counties undertake quite infrequently.

Delaware County's last reassessment went into effect in 2000. Montgomery and Chester Counties last reassessed at about the same time, and Bucks County has not reassessed in decades. (New Jersey's revaluations are performed at the town level and occur more frequently.)

How much of a change Pappas will see much in his property tax bill after the reassessment takes effect in 2021 is uncertain.

The majority of the borough's residents should see a drop in the county portion of the tax bill — now about $600 annually. Lansdowne is one of several communities where homeowners pay more than their fair share in county levies, effectively subsidizing tax breaks for under-assessed property owners.

In addition to borough taxes being among the highest in the county, residents live in the William Penn School District, which has one of the highest school tax rates in the region. School taxes account for more than 70 percent of a homeowner's bill in Lansdowne.

The reassessment will be revenue-blind, which means that the county, municipalities, and school districts cannot earn more in tax revenue after the reassessment than they did before; they must adjust their tax rates accordingly, even if individual property bills rise and fall. (Philadelphia, which reassesses properties much more frequently than other counties, is the only county in Pennsylvania where reassessments can increase tax revenue.)

During public meetings in Delaware County this year, "the most common question was, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to have to move,'" said John Van Zelst, the county's assessment manager.

Actually, Van Zelst said he has explained to residents, assessments will be based on the current value of the home — and tax rates will be reset, as well. When the mass appraisal is complete, properties should be assessed at 100 percent of market value. Assessments in Delaware County currently represent 58 percent of market value, according to the state board that tracks them.

But that figure represents an average; an Inquirer and Daily News analysis found that nearly one-third of county homes are under-assessed, or paying less than their fair share in property taxes, and more than one-third of residential properties are over-assessed, which means their owners are effectively subsidizing those who are paying too little.

The county has a $6 million contract with Tyler Technologies to straighten out the values.

About 10 percent of residential property owners, or 18,000, will get a visit from data collectors, Noldy said. Most of the work is computerized, and some of it is done out of state.

Russell Place, the group leader of the data collectors, worked through a list last week of properties on Congress Avenue in Lansdowne. Most of the time, he said, property owners are not home during the day to answer questions.

Confusion and alarm surrounding the home visits increased in recent weeks after the county issued an alert about a potential scam: A woman posing as a Tyler employee knocked on a door and asked to enter a home, officials said. Data collectors will never ask to enter a home, the county told residents, and they wear yellow vests and county identification badges.

Property owners will be given forms listing data compiled about their homes before new assessments are generated, and residents can notify Tyler if they find incorrect information on the forms.

They will have two opportunities to contest an assessment before it takes effect for tax payments in 2021: After they receive notices containing new values in February 2020, they can go through an informal hearing process with Tyler, and after they receive a final value from the county in July 2020, they can file appeals.

But residents' top concern is the impact on tax bills. At one Congress Avenue home last week, Place, the data collector, encountered Herve Auguste, who said he didn't own the home but worked for the company that did.

Auguste answered Place's questions about the house. And then he had some questions of his own.

"The tax is too high around here," said Auguste, a homeowner in nearby East Lansdowne, with tax rates almost identical to Lansdowne's.

“In theory, they make everything fair,” Place tried to reassure him about the revaluation. “That’s why they do it.”