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Promise of sewers caused county land values to soar

During the Westmoreland Supervisors’ regular February meeting the big discussion topic was the reassessment. Appraiser Fred Pearson delivered his best explanation of the reassessment’s higher land values and the public comment segment gave ordinary county residents an opportunity to weigh in.
Pearson explained that values have risen sharply in neighborhoods where county sewer is already in place. He explained that values rose similarly in neighborhoods were sewer systems are planned but have not yet been installed.
Westmoreland County Citizens Association (WCCA) President Kennon Morris was one of the first property owners to address the reassessment during that meeting’s public comment segment.

“So now we know that where the sewers are going, you are assessing the land higher,” Morris said to Pearson.
“Yes,” Pearson replied.
“That is adding insult to injury,” said Morris. Those [Phase 2 Washington District sewer] people put up their money for the connections and have been waiting since 2005. Now you are going to hit them with higher taxes.”
Morris expressed disappointment that the county had not included the WCCA on the meeting’s agenda.
“All of us had hoped to have extra time to deliver our presentation,” he began. “We have meetings on the fourth Monday of each month and we go by majority rule. We had a meeting on Jan. 25 and the 80 to 100 people who attended are all very upset about the assessments, about the sewer projects and about the way the county is going.
“We wanted to be on the agenda tonight, but we got snowed. We called the County Administrator’s Office the Tuesday morning after our meeting because a majority of the people wanted me to be on the agenda to speak for them. I made the request when I called the office and I was told they’d put us on. I never heard another word, but after the office put the agenda out on Feb. 3 I got a fax from [County Administrator] Norm Risavi telling WCCA we could not be on the agenda, that we had to make our remarks during the public comment segment.
“Well,” said Morris, “I hope maybe with this new Board of Supervisors Chairman, Woody Hynson, people will be permitted to speak during public comment and get answers, because we never have before.
“I find that it’s snubbing our organization. It’s snubbing everybody in the county and the people aren’t happy. [Mr. Risavi] wrote the [faxed] letter, not you,” Morris said to Chairman Hynson. The treatment confirmed what most people already think. [Mr. Risavi] is running the county. It was very unprofessional and we don’t appreciate it
“We’re having the meeting tonight about the property assessments because you all panicked in 2008 and 2007,” the WCCA president then told the members of the board.
“That was after you got the previous reassessment figures and the State Office of Taxation threatened you.
“Well,” Morris then reasoned, “if the county did the assessment in 2005 and the state [reviewed the values] in 2006 and 2007, I’ll bet we were below the numbers from the state.
“There isn’t any state law that said we had to do this reassessment. All of you wanted to do it yourselves. You [launched this initiative] and [the new set of values] should have been [on the books in time for the] 2009 tax year. It was not because you pushed it back, hoping that values would go up. Instead of going up, the values have gone down, but we have a new assessment that tells us things are up instead of down.
“To understand assessments, we have to understand the master plan or strategic plan of Westmoreland County. The master plan or strategic plan of the county came here about the same time the county administrator came. [He brought a plan] to put sewers from one end of the county to the other, you know But where has this gotten us?” Morris said.
“Where has it gotten us?” Morris repeated. “We’re a million dollars in debt for the Montross sewer and very few businesses, if any, have located in Montross. We have a sewer system in Coles Point that has not run properly and has never turned a profit. Why did this happen? Because we counted on the developers who wanted it, and now they are belly up.
“I realize the sewer has helped some people down there, but is it paying for itself? We don’t know. We do know that we are steadily going in debt. We’ve got the Phase 2 Washington District sewer project that depended on a developer for $4 million. When he didn’t deliver we had to borrow the money.
“Why are we doing this?” he questioned. “It’s to get that tax base up. This county is using sewers to get the tax base up. We’re trying to get a grant right now to get the sewer for Tidwells and Glebe Harbor, but has anyone ever convened a public hearing to ask the people if that is what they want?
“There has been no public hearing. Instead, we have to get the money and then have a public hearing. We’ve got to get that tax base up because you get that tax base up and then you reassess. You say you will lower the levy, that the reassessment won’t raise taxes, that taxes won’t be higher, but is that the way it really works?
“The way it is and the way this assessor says he feels, if it’s got a sewer there, the land is worth $25,000 to $30,000 an acre. Just because you put a sewer in a swamp doesn’t mean you’re going to live in the swamp. Sewers were developed to go to subdivisions that were planned. When you put that sewer to a subdivision, you knew what the values of the houses are right there.
“You don’t put a sewer down at Coles Point,” said Morris of that traditionally rural waterfront community.
“This is a very diverse community,” the native Westmorelander continued. “[Mr. Pearson] doesn’t know the county. What is it? He doesn’t even know the way it has been and he doesn’t have enough [comparable properties that sold] to make a judgment [when performing a market analysis].
“It’s funny that someone in our county government is apparently telling Mr. Pearson the value levels he needs to get to. How do you tell the assessor what levels to get to,” he then asked the members of the board.
“How can Mr. Pearson sit there and tell me, ‘I’m backing off’? There were no comps and that’s not how an assessment should be done. It should be based on comps. When I went to Mr. Pearson about the land we own, he had one comp, but raised the value of our land.
“We are not a growing county,” Morris then stated. “We are a county with the wrong ideas about how to get the land values up. Are we going to keep on raising values? I’m asking because I don’t know. We have people in this county who have lived here all their lives in little hamlets like Tidwells. Now how many people in Tidwells do you think are ready to sell their land because they are on the waterfront?
“Where is the comparable? Where is the comparable?” he repeated. “If Mr. Pearson doesn’t have enough comparables, he should keep everything as it is.
“In 2005 the value of the county after the reassessment increased from approximately $1 billion to approximately $2 billion. You lowered the levy from 66-cents to 44-cents. You raised $2.2 million. In 2007 you upped the levy from 44-cents to 50-cents. You raised another $1.2 million.
“Where I live, my taxes went up 113 percent. Where is the money? Where has it gone? We don’t have any [new] schools. Are the schools any different? We’ve known for 10 or 15 years we’ve got a school falling down. Where has that money gone? Can any of you all tell me?
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s all gone to the sewers. I just don’t know. You raised $1.75 million in personal property taxes that year that went to the general fund, so what I’m getting at is I don’t know why you have a basis for raising anything. Mr. Pearson had one comparable for me when I went to see him. I don’t know, but I don’t believe that’s enough comparables and I think that you can see that,” Morris told the members of the board.
“I think [members of county government] gave Mr. Pearson figures to go for, that he had to go higher and that you are striving to get it where it is. Everybody should be expected to pay their fair share, but too often it is a big hit for the people that are there.
“You have a tough job to do, but you need to take charge of our county administration and what’s going on with the money,” Morris told the county supervisors. “You are going to have to make tough decisions, like any other business. That could mean job cuts, with everybody cutting back.
“It’s a tough situation out there, but we are going to continue to be here and we expect to be on the agenda the next time we present the request,” the WCCA president explained.

 Betsy Ficklin
Staff reporter

 

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