Appeals of Allegheny County property assessments, unleashed by a lawsuit, are starting to bite into the revenues of governments, notably in already strained Mon Valley communities. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has stayed above water, because rising residential value has outstripped slashed skyscraper tax bills — so far.

graphic of a one hundred dollar bill superimposed inside three houses of different heights with broken green pieces

How property tax assessments create winners and losers

As thousands of pending appeals threaten to upend municipal and school budgets, County Executive Sara Innamorato is taking a cautious path on one of her key campaign planks supporting routine countywide reassessments.

A reassessment would come with political costs for Innamorato and monetary costs for some individual property owners. (It could also cost her personally, by boosting the low tax bill on her Upper Lawrenceville house.) But experts say it’s the cure for a defective system that currently overtaxes some and undertaxes others.

Even with most of last year’s appeals as-yet undecided, some municipalities saw a drop in taxable assessed value in the last two years, with much of the downturn coming in Mon Valley communities that are hurting economically. Fifty of the county’s 130 municipalities lost taxable value since the start of 2022; Homestead (10%), West Homestead (6%) and Clairton (4%) saw the biggest percentages of their tax base disappear.

Property owners filed an unusually large number of assessment appeals last year. That’s because a court ordered a change in the math used to calculate assessments determined by appeals, making it more favorable to owners.

Owners of large commercial buildings appealed en masse and are expected to win significant cuts to their assessed values, lowering their tax bills. Already, three of the dozens of Downtown towers have won appeals and seen significant tax relief. 

When big property owners saw the new tax math, “they jumped on it,” said Dominick Gambino, a local government consultant who managed the county’s assessment office from 2001 to 2003. He added that yet another change in the tax math, taking effect this year, could cause a fresh round of appeals.

While Pittsburgh’s assessed value rose 1.87% from 2022 to 2024, a PublicSource review found, a decline has already begun Downtown. 

Assessed value in the city’s 2nd Ward, which spans much of Downtown and the Strip District, dropped 3.73% during that time period, shedding more than $112 million in assessed value. Using current tax rates — measured in mills — that $112 million represents more than $900,000 in lost tax revenue for the city and $1.2 million for the city school district. And appeals for dozens more commercial properties are still pending. 

So far, value has increased enough in residential neighborhoods to make up for Downtown’s problems. The 6th Ward, in Lower Lawrenceville, saw a whopping 30% increase in assessed value ($130.2 million in taxable value). The 5th (Hill District), 16th (South Hills) and 17th (South Side) wards each increased between 9% and 13%.

But the math is unlikely to favor taxing bodies for much longer.

Looming crisis

The successful Downtown appeals are “just the beginning” of the wave of assessment cuts Downtown, said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. “I think what’s in the news of late of the percentage declines in these big buildings are probably typical of what most Downtown buildings will get in the short term.”

Six-figure tax bill decreases for dozens of commercial properties would have a devastating effect on the city and school district. The city is facing a razor-thin budget in the near future with an operating surplus of just a few million dollars. The school district is already operating at a deficit and is considering plans to close school buildings to cut costs.  

“One way or the other, property values Downtown are coming down,” Briem said. “It’s probably going to force a millage increase on everyone else.” That would effectively raise tax bills on property owners throughout the city to make up for the lost revenue coming from Downtown.

While Downtown owners will see lower tax bills, Briem said they are hardly winners in the situation. 

“They’ve lost, they’ve lost a lot and they’re going to keep losing,” Briem said, because decreased demand for office space since the start of the pandemic has crushed commercial building revenue. The assessment cuts are “reflecting that reality.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools solicitor sounded the alarm in a January interview.

“If these large reductions that have occurred Downtown and will continue to occur, they simply do not have financial wherewithal to sustain that,” solicitor Ira Weiss said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s office took a less dire tone. 

Mayor Ed Gainey gives his 2023 budget address in City Council Chambers on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, at the City County Building in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Mayor Ed Gainey gives his 2023 budget address in City Council Chambers on Nov. 13, at the City County Building in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“Budget wise, the team forecasted the possibility of reduced real estate tax revenue,” said city press secretary Olga George. “Currently, Finance and [the Office of Management and Budget] are watching how real estate collections are processing.”

The mayor’s 2024 budget does not forecast a drop in real estate tax revenue. This year’s budget plans for a number slightly higher than last year’s, and the city’s five-year plan projects increases each year.

George said the city is assessing new valuations and deciding whether to contest them in court. 

Peter McDevitt, the budget director for Pittsburgh City Council, said it’s too early and there are too many variables to “hit the panic button,” but the city could eventually be forced to find new revenue or cut services. “Raising millage is not the only avenue, but it’s the most viable one” to raise revenue, he said. 

The county’s $1.1 billion operating budget, which relies on property taxes for around 37% of its revenue, is not in danger of a shortfall, according to county spokesperson Abigail Gardner.

Reassessment vs. ratios

Experts including Briem and Gambino say the fix for the county’s assessment woes lies in conducting routine, countywide reassessments — a concept Innamorato has endorsed, as long as it can be done with new protections for vulnerable taxpayers. 

Gardner confirmed that Innamorato continues to believe “that a reassessment would be a more fair and equitable way to determine values,” adding that “there are no immediate plans to engage in a reassessment.” The real estate market is shifting, she wrote in response to questions, prompting “a reimagining of how to keep our Downtown thriving.”

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, center, arrives for a meeting on Jan. 4, in the County Courthouse. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The last time the county reassessed all its properties was in 2013,after a judge ordered then-County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to do so. Fitzgerald never did so again.

Pennsylvania allows counties to leave decades-old assessments in place, subject to appeals where there’s evidence of rising value. 

In counties that use this “base-year” approach, properties without improvements or recent sales generally keep the same assessments each year. Where there’s evidence of a change in value, the owner or a taxing body can file an appeal.

When an appeal is filed in Allegheny County, the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review assigns a new fair market value. That value is multiplied by the common level ratio [CLR] to come up with an assessment.

The CLR is meant to adjust appeal-generated assessments to resemble those last set in the base year. But a lawsuit revealed that the county submitted flawed data for the calculation of the CLR, and a judge forced its reduction. 

For appeals filed in Allegheny County this year, the fair market value will be multiplied by 0.545 to determine the assessment, meaning a property with a post-appeal value of $100,000 would be assessed at $54,500. By contrast, for appeals filed in 2021, the ratio was 0.875, meaning that same property would have been assessed at $87,500. 

Property owners whose assessments were boosted in prior year appeals may appeal now, and use the lower CLR to push their assessments down. The ratio, though, won’t help owners whose property values have soared.

Your tax depends on when you bought

Despite the change in the ratio, tax bills in Allegheny County continue to be driven less by the value of the property than the date of purchase. The wild variances in assessments are evident on the streets of the current and prior county executives.

Fitzgerald arguably benefits to the tune of thousands of dollars per year from his decision not to reassess.

He bought his house in Point Breeze in 1989 for $202,000. Because the county doesn’t regularly reassess, his tax bill has remained static, even as property values have soared.

A next-door neighbor bought a similarly sized house in 2021 for $970,095. That price drew an assessment appeal by the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and a resulting fair market value of $616,000.

The neighbor’s total annual tax bill — county, city and school district — is around $3,000 higher than Fitzgerald’s.

Innamorato could lose out financially under the scenario she proposed during her campaign for executive. She has said she'd like to reassess all properties, while increasing existing tax breaks for homeowners and seniors and adding protections for longtime owner-occupants.

Innamorato bought her row house in Upper Lawrenceville for $71,000 in 2015. On the same side of the same block is a house that’s around 20% larger (though it’s not a row house). Purchased during the Lawrenceville real estate boom, it is subject to a tax bill around five times higher.

Gambino said the current system, with no reassessments and one CLR for the entire county, is unfair because different areas have appreciated at different rates since 2013 — meaning homeowners in low-appreciation markets are subject to the same ratio as those in high-appreciation areas.

The base-year system is “something Robin Hood’s evil twin would condone,” Gambino said. “All this talk about reduction and refunds, these are all symptoms of a sickness called the base-year scheme.”

Plight of boroughs

Seth Abrams feels conflicted. On a personal level, a countywide reassessment would cost him money. He bought his home 13 years ago and said it has appreciated significantly since the last time the county assessed its value.

But Abrams is the borough manager for Munhall, a place that stands to lose a lot of money in pending appeals. Just one appeal, by the Lowe’s hardware store in the Waterfront, has already cost the borough $50,000 in annual revenue, enough to wipe out a cushion he had planned for the 2024 budget.

Now, the possibility of a millage increase weighs on him as more appeals, including some from U.S. Steel, are pending.

“If [U.S. Steel] got something along the lines of what Lowe’s got and they got their assessment cut in half, that’s another $60,000 or $70,000 loss that I’m trying not to factor into things right now,” Abrams said. “That would mean that we would have to dig into the reserves, we would have to look at all of our fees and our taxes.

“People will see increased costs if this trend of losing taxable value continues.”

Despite the implications to his personal tax bill, as a professional, Abrams wants to see a reassessment. 

“I need to look out for the needs of an entire community. In Munhall, I’m looking at 5,000 or 6,000 residences. For me, I’m looking at one.”

Assessed values dropped from 2022-2024 in numerous Mon Valley communities near Munhall, showing Abrams’ problems are shared by his peers in other towns. Many of those municipalities and the adjacent school districts already have some of the county’s highest millage rates, giving them less margin to raise the levy.

Clairton will have to deal with the outcome of 32 parcels under appeals filed by U.S. Steel, which operates the Clairton Coke Works there. Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi told PublicSource in April that the steelmaker accounts for about one-third of its tax base, and the revenue loss from appeals could “be catastrophic for the City of Clairton.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor, and can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Delaney Rauscher Adams.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...

Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...