Published: May 16, 2024


Prop­erty own­ers wait­ing months for as­sess­ment refunds that should ar­rive in just 30 days


Some Pittsburgh property owners who waited months or longer to get results of assessment appeal hearings now find themselves tediously waiting again — to get the tax refunds they won in those cases.

That’s despite the fact that the Second Class City Law that governs Pittsburgh requires that such refunds be made within 30 days after the city has been notified by the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review that a reduction has been ordered.

Jason Yarbrough, a lawyer who handles assessment appeals, said Wednesday that he has dozens of clients who are still waiting for their tax refunds from the city and the Pittsburgh Public Schools after getting decisions from the assessment board in December or January.

Some of those decisions date back to appeals filed in March 2023 and involved the 2022 and 2023 tax years.

“Our clients have reported receiving their property tax refunds from the county, but no refunds from the City of Pittsburgh and the School District of Pittsburgh,” he said in a statement.

“We have notified the appropriate City of Pittsburgh officials of our clients’ concerns and desire to receive those refunds ASAP. We remain hopeful that these refunds will be issued promptly.”

In addition to the Second Class City Law, the Second Class County Assessment Law that governs Allegheny County mandates that assessment appeal refunds be issued within 30 days.

At one point, Mr. Yarbrough believed that refunds would be issued in the first quarter of this year for decisions that were made by the end of last year or January.

“It certainly is a concern for clients who spent money over the course of two or three years [on appeals]. They’re obviously interested in getting those refunds back,” he said.

Olga George, spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Gainey, declined to comment.

Ira Weiss, Pittsburgh Public Schools solicitor, said the city collects taxes for the district and is responsible for issuing refunds on its behalf.

“They make the refund and they notify the school district of the refunds that are made and adjust our account accordingly,” he said.

The issue has arisen at a time the city is facing the loss of about $3 million in tax revenue and millions of dollars more in refunds because of property assessment cuts, including those involving some of Downtown’s biggest skyscrapers. The city controller’s office has estimated that the refunds could cost as much as $10 million.

Ed Hirshberg, an attorney who specializes in property tax assessment litigation, said he has several clients who have been waiting well beyond 30 days to receive refunds from the city. He said those cases involve “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in refunds.”

In the past Mr. Hirshberg said he has successfully sued school districts to force them to pony up refunds when they haven’t issued them within the 30 days required by law.

In the current cases, “None of my clients have yet asked me to do so, but some are getting anxious,” he said.

Robert N. Peirce Jr., a real estate attorney who has handled more than 10,000 assessment appeals, said the city has always been slow in issuing refunds.

“That’s nothing new,” he said. “The city always takes a long time.”

As for why, “I have no idea other than they seem to be somewhat inefficient and that’s an understatement.”

Sharon DiPaolo, another attorney who handles assessment appeals, said she encountered the same problem last fall with clients who had received decisions from the Common Pleas Court Board of Viewers in May 2023 and who were still waiting for refunds in September and October.

The Board of Viewers handles appeals from property owners who are unhappy with decisions made by the county assessment board.

Ms. DiPaolo said she convened a meeting of various city and county stakeholders to resolve the issue. The delays were attributed to having a new employee processing the refunds.

“It seemed to be an innocent employee training issue,” she said. “I thought we had fixed that.”

But then she started hearing from colleagues recently that their clients were encountering delays in getting their refund checks from the city.

“There’s some kind of systematic breakdown when we see a pattern like that,” she said.

Although the law requires refunds to be issued within 30 days, Ms. DiPaolo said they usually take longer than that, even for the county, which typically is prompt in settling up. The wait can be eight to 12 weeks, she said.

“That’s actually excellent in Pennsylvania. There are some other counties that have really monkeyed with that,” she noted.

That may come of little solace to some taxpayers who endured lengthy waits — some stretching more than a year — to get assessment appeals heard and decisions made.

And while some property owners are experiencing delays in getting refunds, those who are facing tax increases after losing appeals won by the city or other municipalities and school districts typically aren’t afforded such grace, Mr. Hirshberg said.

“Updated tax bills raised by an assessment increase, even for multiple years, are issued very quickly, with back years due almost immediately upon receipt,” he said. “There may be some leeway here or there, but the increases seem to always process faster than the refunds.”

Mark Belko: