Court Upholds School District’s Ability to File Tax Assessment Appeals on Recently Sold, Underassessed Properties
Written by: Alan Nochumson
In a published opinion issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in GM Berkshire Hills v. Berks County Board of Assessment, 290 A.3d 238 (Pa. 2023), a split court upheld the ability of school districts to file real estate tax assessment appeals on recently sold, underassessed properties.
In GM Berkshire Hills, GM Berkshire Hills, LLC and GM Oberlin Berkshire Hills, LLC purchased 47 residential buildings containing 408 rental units for a combined sales price of $54,250,000 in 2017, the opinion said.
The last countywide assessment of the property was in 1994 and placed the property value at $10,448,700.
Meanwhile, the Wilson School District (hereinafter the district) filed an appeal pursuant to their 2018 resolution to select specific property assessments to appeal.
According to the opinion, the district’s 2018 resolution established that a property would be selected for an appeal if: there was a recent sale of the property as shown by data obtained from the State Taxation Equalization Board; and there was an underassessment by at least $150,000.
In doing so, to determine if there was an underassessment, the district claimed it took the recent sales price times the common-level ratio (hereinafter the CLR) minus the current assessed value, the opinion said.
Furthermore, the district stated that its selection criteria did not consider the type of use of the property in determining whether to file a real estate tax assessment appeal.
After filing its appeal to have the apartment complex assessment in GM Berkshire Hills raised, the county assessment office increased the assessed value to $37 million, the opinion said.
Subsequently, the property owners appealed that ruling to the trial court, arguing that the district’s policy improperly created a subclassification of properties that violated the uniformity clause that is set forth in Article VIII, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The uniformity clause declares that “all taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws.” In essence, the uniformity clause constrains taxing districts in their selection of properties for appeal by prohibiting any discriminatory methodology.
In GM Berkshire Hills, the district’s financial officer argued that the district selected the $150,000 threshold because it was high enough to allow recovery of appeal costs while simultaneously being low enough to encompass properties of varying types.
The district then supplied the trial court with evidence showing that its recent appeals comprised properties of different types, and that they did not select properties based on their type of classification, the opinion said.
The trial court ultimately ruled in the district’s favor.
Subsequently, the property owners appealed the trial court’s ruling to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
In rendering its decision, the Commonwealth Court relied upon the Supreme Court’s ruling in Valley Forge Towers Apartments N v. Upper Merion Area School District, 163 A.3d 962 (Pa. 2017).
In Valley Forge Towers, a school district only appealed assessments of commercial properties, arguing that this was because of the increased prospect of recovering appeal costs through enhanced tax revenue from commercial properties.
The Supreme Court in Valley Forge Towers held that such targeting of properties created a subclass subjected to differential treatment, thus, the appeal violating the uniformity clause.
The Commonwealth Court in GM Berkshire Hills then ruled in favor of the district, finding that that the district’s resolution rested on financial considerations rather than property types which is entirely permissible under the uniformity clause.
The property owners in GM Berkshire Hills then appealed the Commonwealth Court’s ruling to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court elected to hear the merits of the appeal.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court in GM Berkshire Hills decided to hear the appeal but limited it to the following issue: “do a school district’s selective real estate tax assessment appeals violate the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution when the school district chooses only recently sold properties for appeal, leaving most properties in the district at outdated base-year values?; and “do a school district’s selective real estate tax assessment appeals violate the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution when the school district chooses only recently sold properties that would generate a minimum amount of additional tax revenue for appeal, leaving most properties in the district at outdated base-year values?”
In the opinion in support of affirmance penned by Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, the Supreme Court started by noting the general principle that all properties in a taxing district lie within a single class that requires uniform treatment. In other words, placing properties in subclasses and treating them differently is expressly prohibited.
Mundy noted that there are two ways that one can undermine tax uniformity when a taxing district appeals the assessment of an individual property. The first arises when one property’s assessment is subject to review and adjustment while other properties in the taxing district are not. The second stems from a taxing district’s selection policy.
Regarding selection policies, Mundy pointed out that the district’s methodology is not prohibited because the district’s policy does not create a prohibited subclass of properties barred by an impermissible characteristic, such as the type or use of the property, but rather it enhances uniformity by selecting the most nonuniform properties in light of assessment and sales price disparities for appeal.
Mundy emphasized that, unless there is a scenario where the CLR does not represent the average assessment ratio of the properties in the district, then the subject property’s assessment has been adjusted to become as uniform as possible with all the properties in the district.
Mundy concluded her opinion by stating that, although one does not appeal every assessment and not all real property appreciates at the same rate, some variance in assessment ratios will occur every year. However, Mundy held that the uniformity clause only requires rough uniformity. Nevertheless, Mundy stressed that, if inequalities ever become prevalent, then the court may order a countywide reassessment.
To present the other side of the court split, Justice Christine Donohue in her opinion in support of reversal of the Commonwealth Court’s ruling, stressed that the district’s policy constituted a subclassification of property for real estate tax assessment appeal purposes and thus violated the uniformity clause given its discriminatory impact.
Succinctly put, Donohue explains that the district first categorizes properties based on their newly purchased status. Next, the district further subdivides properties based on their sale price, appealing assessments only if they appear to be underassessed by at least $150,000. Thus, in Donohue’s eyes, the district’s policy creates an unconstitutional subclass of properties based on their sale prices, and he would reverse the Commonwealth Court’s ruling.
Finally, Justice Kevin Dougherty wrote a separate opinion in support of reversal of the Commonwealth Court’s ruling.
Dougherty similarly noted that the CLR does not represent uniformity, and the selection process identifies properties with the highest disparities between assessed and reassessed value. As such, Dougherty also believed that such a selection process violated the uniformity clause.
However, Dougherty went a step further than Donohue and concluded that frequent countywide assessments of properties in each taxing district could solve future dilemmas such as this one, stating that Pennsylvania is one of two states that lacks statutorily mandated reassessments on a fixed interval. As such, Dougherty urged the legislature to repeal its indefinite use scheme and instead enact a mandatory reassessment period every few years.
Dylan Beltrami, a third-year law student at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, who is interning at the firm, assisted in the preparation of this article.
Alan Nochumson is the principal of Nochumson P.C., a legal services firm with a focus on real estate, land use & zoning, litigation, and business counseling for the people of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Nochumson is a frequent author and lecturer on issues commonly confronting businesses, individuals and professionals. You can reach him at 215-399-1346 or email@example.com.
Alex Goldberg is an associate attorney at the firm. You can reach him at 215-399-1346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.