Mark Curry showed up at the hearing with one goal: lower property taxes.
The father of five hoped to convince the local tax assessment appeal board that his $1.5 million home was valued too high. It was his best shot at shaving money off his more than $40,000 bill.
Curry, a business owner, believed he'd been paying too much on his taxes.
The average school district tax rate, which is the largest tax on county property owners, has increased nearly 13 percent since 2006, when the county last updated its property values.
As home values tanked in recent years, more property owners sought relief from the York County board of assessment appeals. Some people appealed properties worth a few hundred dollars. Some were business owners with multi-million dollar properties.
It's a way for property owners to try to keep more of their money. But for every home or business that gets a lower assessment, that's less money the county and school districts get.
Those government entities most often send lawyers to protect their interests when there's an appeal on a property worth a lot of money.
In 2009, there were more than 360 property appeals that were not dropped or settled. Those cases resulted in a countywide decrease of $34.4 million in assessed value.
Many centered on the same argument: Property values have gone down, so my home's assessed value -- the number used to determine property taxes -- should decrease, too.
'It's the economy'
When the property tax bill arrived for Ronald C. Kaltreider's new North Codorus Township home, he thought it was too high -- $214,510.
He researched other homes in the area, and decided to appeal.
Kaltreider's best chance to win an appeal was to find a mistake in his assessment and bring evidence to his hearing. If a property owner can prove something's wrong with the assessment, the property value -- and the owner's tax bill -- will go down.
School districts stand
"If it's not significant, it's not (cost) effective to go after it," said Paula Denton, business manager for the South Eastern School District. "It doesn't really affect our revenue."
Last year, homeowners in York County were more likely than business owners to get their property values lowered by going through the appeal process, an analysis of hearing cases showed.
The appeal hearing board -- three people appointed by the York County Commissioners -- meets a few times a year and each time spends a week plowing through dozens of appeals.
The list of properties touches on just about every kind of land or dwelling imaginable: A cell phone tower. Churches. Ranch homes. Bowling alleys. Vacant land.
A typical hearing lasts less than 15 minutes. Many homeowners represent themselves -- and they have choices to make that mean even more than those moments before the appeals board.
Successful appeals require evidence of decreased market value, said Mark Saunders, chairman of the board and a real estate agent. The property owner has the burden of proof, and he or she should get a report from a certified assessor or engineer, he said.
"Just saying it's the economy isn't enough," he said.
Looking for mistakes
When an appeal is made, the county often sends an appraiser to check out the property. Property owners should
The county's goal is to check facts listed on the original assessment, said Steven Brown, a York County-based state certified appraiser.
For instance, some property assessments say there's a finished basement, but that might not be the case, Brown said. The assessor will take pictures to prove it's not a finished basement, and that's something that would prove the home is worth less than what the county has on file, he said.
Late last year, the assessment board heard an appeal from the Home Depot store in Springettsbury Township. The company presented the building drawings as evidence that the county listed the store as being larger than it is.
But the county assessor physically measured the store and discovered something: The building was larger than the architect's drawings showed. The store, assessed at
$7.7 million, lost its appeal.
To fight his new home's value, Kaltreider didn't hire a lawyer or a professional assessment, deciding it wasn't worth the cost.
"I am not upset with that," he said. "No one likes to pay taxes. What I worry about is how equitable the system is."
Falling prices, lower value?
Housing prices have slumped since the county last established values for the purposes of taxation, so many people believe they are being overtaxed.
Reassessing properties during an economic recession does not guarantee home values will go down, said E. John Fedor, director of the county's appeal office. The purpose of a reassessment is to even the playing field by redoing everyone's value at one time.
The county last assessed all properties in 2006. The York County Commissioners will decide when to assess properties again, and they've discussed it but have made no plans yet.
In the meantime, homes keep getting built and the county has to keep assessing them and trying to bring those values in line with homes that were last checked in 2005.
Curry believed the $1.5 million value on his 2005 assessment was too high, he said. He brought proof -- a certified assessor's opinion -- but the board would not accept it. All hearing evidence must be presented in advance, the judges said.
During his appeal hearing, Curry mentioned the bad economy, and said $40,000 was a lot to pay.
One of the judges remarked that at least he was getting something in return for his payment -- education for his children.
The board denied Curry's appeal.
Curry took his appeal to the next step: common pleas court.
Pay now, save later
Terry Brenneman has been in the bowling business for more than 40 years.
That's also about the time he began to closely pay attention to how much he was paying in property taxes.
He's appealed the values of his properties, which now include two bowling alleys and a wholesale store, several times. Every extra dollar that he spends on taxes is less money he can use to invest in his business.
"Overall, I've found the board to be fair," he said. "But if I don't believe my assessment is correct, I am going to appeal it."
If something seems to be off in a property assessment, Brenneman hires a lawyer to prepare the appeal.
But it's not a no-lose situation to go before the board. The assessment could go up.
For instance, Jim Halkias filed appeals on about 30 York County properties last year, mostly residential homes and vacant lots.
Values remained the same on some, declined on a handful and actually increased by about $43,500 on five others, so his tax bill on those properties will go up, too. He could not be reached for comment.
It's worth going through the process if there's a problem that can be proven, Brenneman said. A too-high assessment can cost thousands over time, he said. This year, he lost his appeals for two properties, valued at a total of about $2.8 million. He's going to appeal to common pleas court, he said.
Properties with the largest values often meet the most resistance.
For instance, the largest dollar decrease in a property that went through the hearing process was the West Manchester Mall.
The mall lost a number of stores last year, including Value City -- a cornerstone in the shopping center -- and the appeals board lowered its $18.3 million assessment to about $14.9 million. Loss of rental income is one of the reasons a property value will be lowered.
The mall also appealed successfully last year. Efforts to reach the mall owners for comment were not successful.
In all, the West York Area School District has lost nearly $350,000 in taxes from the mall over the last two years, Supt. Emilie Lonardi said. It has to be made up somewhere, and that can mean a higher tax rate for everyone.
"Sometimes, someone does an appeal and it's not a big difference," Lonardi said. "But when you do a big property like that . . . that loss goes on the backs of taxpayers."
It's hard to tell how much money, countywide, is lost or gained through the appeal hearing process each year. The county assessment office doesn't track it.
However, an analysis of the 369 appeals that went before the hearing board showed that more than $34 million was knocked off those assessments.
The county sends letters to the school districts to alert them of all properties that have appealed.
South Eastern School District business manager Paula Denton said she keeps an eye on those letters as they filter through her office. There hasn't been a noticeable increase in those letters this year, she said.
According to an analysis of the appeals that went to a hearing, Dallastown Area had the most appeals heard by the board -- 55, including 33 condominiums owned by the same two people. Many of the property values were not changed. But 13 were lowered by a total of about $306,000.
Although the county and municipalities also levy real estate taxes, school districts are the only governmental bodies that have the ability to petition for properties to be assessed higher before a reassessment.
Districts don't do that often in York County, said Lori Lawlor, the office manager who schedules and plans York County tax assessment appeal hearings. Most appeals come from property owners.
Usually the most inquiries about tax appeals come in August, Brown said. That's when tax bills usually hit mailboxes.
Curry said his appeal wasn't just about the taxes. It was about paying a fair amount.
"It's worth spending the money to get appraisals and lawyer," he said. "They're all just too happy to take that money for as long as they can."
TOP FIVE ASSESSED PROPERTIES
1. Carlisle Street, Hanover, Hanover Public, regional shopping mall, PR Financing LTD Part.: $28,173,820
2. E. Market Street, Springettsbury Township, Central York, community/NBHD shopping center, Edens & Avant Financing, $23,950,000
3. 1800 Loucks Road, West Manchester Township, West York, regional shopping mall, West Manchester Mall, $18,341,390
4. Eisenhower Drive, Hanover, Hanover Public, discount department store, Home Depot USA Inc., $11,615,640
5. 1670 Windsor Road, Windsor Township, Red Lion Area, apartments, Windsor Pointe 145 LP, $11,364,670
LOWEST FIVE ASSESSED PROPERTIES
1. 6147 York Road, Heidelberg Township, Spring Grove Area, commercial vacant land, Freedom Path Ministries Inc., $600
2. Pleasant Grove Road, Newberry Township, Dist. 1, West Shore, residential vacant land, James P. Halkias, $1,920
3. Knob Hill Road, Peach Bottom Township, Southeastern, residential vacant land, James P. Halkias, $2,380
4. Cragmoor Road, Newberry Township, Dist. 1, West Shore, residential vacant land, James P. Halkias, $2,640
5. Conewago Road, Dover Township, Dover Area, residential vacant land, Jim Halkias, $3,140
TOP FIVE REDUCTIONS
1. 1800 Loucks Road, West Manchester Township, West York, regional shopping mall, West Manchester Mall, $3,347,890 reduction
2. Carlisle Street, Hanover, Hanover Public, regional shopping mall, PR Financing LTD Part., $2,936,070 reduction
3. 138 Mt. Zion Road, Springettsbury Township, York Suburban, manufacturing/processing, York Container Co., $1,670,370 reduction
4. 693 Lombard Street, York Township, Dallastown Area, community/NBHD shopping center, Northville Green Associates LLC, $1,518,100 reduction
5. 1 Marketway West, York, York City, office building, HW York Properties LLC, $1,450,750 reduction
TOP FIVE INCREASES
1. Conewago Road, Dover Township, Dover Area, Residential vacant land, Jim Halkias, $19,876.20 increase
2. Cragmoor Road, Newberry Township, Dist. 1, West Shore, Residential vacant land, James P. Halkias, $19,873.80 increase
3. Pleasant Grove Road, Newberry Township, Dist. 1,West Shore, Residential vacant land, James P. Halkias, $15,145.90 increase
4. 2826 Halstead Lane, Manchester Township, Central York, two-story house, Andrew and Ursula Kazimierczak, $13,015 increase
5. Bremer Road, Conewago Township, Northeastern, Residential vacant land, Jim Halkias, $6,875 increase
Note: Properties listed with municipality, school district, property type, owner and name of business (where applicable). Some properties listed with no street address.
HOW TO FILE AN APPEAL
The York/Adams County Realtors Association and the York County Assessment Office created a step-by-step instruction sheet. You can find it at the York/Adams County Realtors Association's Web site, www.rayac.com.
They recommend that an appeal have the three traditional approaches to a property value assessment: sales comparison, income generated from the property and the cost of similar properties. The assessment should establish the current market value.
Appeals must be filed by Aug. 1 of each year. Appeals that are granted will result in a change Jan. 1 of the next year for county taxes and July 1 for school district taxes. If it's a reassessment year, that August deadline moves to Sept. 1.
If there is a mathematical or clerical error in the assessment, a property owner is entitled to a refund of tax overpayment, going back six years.
STEPS IN AN APPEAL
--- Get a copy of an appeal form from the York County Assessment Office, 28 E. Market St., Room 105. The office's number is 771-9232.
--- Establish a current market value for the property. The burden of proof rests with the property owner.
--- An assessor from the county may contact the property owner to offer a settlement.
--- The assessment board can adjust sales assessed values because of a distressed housing market, but the board will apply a formula to the value it places on a property to align it with 2006 levels, the last year of overall assessment in the county.
--- A property owner who is not happy with the result can appeal to the York County Court of Common Pleas.
A NEW TAX RATE
In 2008, the South Eastern School District settled an appeal filed over the assessed value of the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station.
That process spanned eight years and ended when the sides agreed that Exelon, the property owner, would pay about $1.8 million annually.
The dispute arose from a state supreme court decision that allowed utility properties to be taxed. Previously, properties like the Exelon power plant were in the same category as hospitals and colleges, which don't have to pay taxes based on the value of the land and buildings.
Often tax-exempt properties, such as college and hospitals, pay a set amount each year in lieu of a tax based on the property's value.
WAYS TO SAVE
There are programs people can use to trim a property tax bill.
All owner-occupied homes are eligible for a tax break each year through the Homestead Exclusion. Farms and other green spaces can apply to take part in the state's Clean and Green program, which aims to preserve those types of properties. Churches and similar entities can apply for a tax exclusion, which will eliminate or reduce property taxes.
For more information, go to the York County Assessment Office Web site, www.york-county.org/departments/assessment/tx_asmnt.htm or call 771-9232.