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APPEAL CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT ETC. CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT AND TOWNSHIP SCOTT (06/09/82)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: June 9, 1982.

APPEAL OF CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT ETC. CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT AND TOWNSHIP OF SCOTT, APPELLANTS. APPEAL OF CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT ETC. CONNECTICUT GENERAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, APPELLANT. APPEAL OF CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT ETC. R. GORDON MATHEWS AND JACK L. FRIEDLANDER ET AL., APPELLANTS. APPEAL OF CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT ETC. JACK L. FRIEDLANDER ET AL., APPELLANTS. APPEAL OF CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT ETC. R. GORDON MATHEWS ET AL., APPELLANTS

Appeals in the cases of Appeal of Chartiers Valley School District and of Township of Scott from assessment of property of Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, No. G.D. 78-3833; Appeal of Chartiers Valley School District and Township of Scott from assessment of property of Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, No. G.D. 78-3834; Appeal of Chartiers Valley School District and of Township of Scott from assessment of property of Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, No. G.D. 78-3835; Appeal of Chartiers Valley School District and of Township of Scott from assessment of property of Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, No. G.D. 78-3836; Appeal of Chartiers Valley School District and of Township of Scott from assessment of property of R. Gordon Mathews, et al., No. G.D. 78-22089; Appeal of Chartiers Valley School District and of Township of Scott from assessment of property of Jack L. Friedlander, et al., No. G.D. 78-22090; and Appeal of Chartiers Valley School District and of Township of Scott from assessment of property of R. Gordon Mathews and Jack L. Friedlander, et al., No. G.D. 78-22091.

COUNSEL

Thomas J. Dempsey, with him William J. Fahey, John Silvestri and William J. Bresnahan, for appellant/ appellee, Chartiers Valley School District and Township of Scott.

Leonard M. Mendelson, with him Maira Barnette, Hollinshead and Mendelson, for appellants/appellees, R. Gordon Mathews, Jack L. Friedlander et al. and Connecticut General Life Insurance Company.

President Judge Crumlish and Judges Rogers and Blatt, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by President Judge Crumlish, Jr. Judge Mencer and Palladino did not participate in the decision in this case.

Author: Crumlish, Jr.

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 123]

This is a consolidation of 14 appeals from seven Allegheny County Common Pleas Court orders affecting real estate tax assessments. We affirm.

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 124]

The taxpayers,*fn1 owners of a Scott Township apartment complex,*fn2 contested their properties' assessments for various years and triennials.*fn3 The County Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review*fn4 (Board) responded:

Reduction of Asscsscd Value

Parcel No. Years in Question From To

64-B-190 1976, 1977, 1978 $1,362,400 $1,100,000

64-G-2 1976, 1977, 1978 $1,376,100 $1,200,000

64-L-300 1976, 1977, 1978 remained at $62,300

64-G-50 1969 $1,778,650 $1,450,000

64-G-50 1970, 1971, 1972 $1,778,650 $1,450,000

64-G-50 1973, 1974, 1975 $1,778,580 $1,600,000

64-G-50 1976, 1977, 1978 $1,778,580 $1,600,000

Both the taxpayers and the taxing authorities*fn5 appealed the Board's determination to common pleas

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 125]

    court. Allegheny County intervened for the taxing authorities. The taxpayers contested the prevailing ratio of assessment to fair market value applied to their properties.*fn6 The taxing bodies, on the other hand, requested the court below to increase the assessed values in all cases. The trial court made specific findings regarding the parcels' respective market values for the years in question and determined the assessments by applying the Board-established 50 percent ratio, and entered the following decisions:

Trial Court's Decision

Parcel No. Years in Question Regarding Assessments

64-B-190 1976, 1977, 1978 Increased from $1,100,000

     to $1,174,700

64-G-2 1976, 1977, 1978 Increased from $1,200,000

     to $1,250,150

64-L-300 1976, 1977, 1978 Remained at $62,300

64-G-50 1969 Remained at $1,450,000

64-G-50 1970, 1971, 1972 Remained at $1,450,000

64-G-50 1973, 1974, 1975 Remained at $1,600,000

64-G-50 1976, 1977, 1978 Increased from $1,600,000

     to $1,650,830

The taxpayers appeal these decisions to this Court and the taxing authorities cross-appeal.

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 126]

We must resolve two issues: first, whether the court below erred in law or abused its discretion in calculating the parcels' respective fair market valuations; and second, whether the taxpayers had produced competent evidence rebutting the uniformity of the Board-established 50 percent assessment to market value ratio. We are mindful of our limited scope of review in these cases: the findings of the court below must be given great force and will not be disturbed unless clear error appears. New Castle Central Page 126} Renewal Associates' Appeal, 36 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 584, 586, 389 A.2d 225, 228 (1978).

The procedure followed in real estate assessment cases has been delineated by our Supreme Court in Deitch Co. v. Board of Property Assessment, 417 Pa. 213, 209 A.2d 397 (1965). The court initially decides, on the basis of competent, credible and relevant evidence, the property's fair market value. The court next applies the appropriate assessed value to market value ratio which exists in the taxing district to the property's market value to arrive at a proper assessment.

I

Our initial focus is on the correctness of the parcels' judicially endorsed fair market valuations. A fair market value*fn7 determination is not controlled by any single factor, Appeal of Park Drive Manor, Inc., 380 Pa. 134, 136, 110 A.2d 392, 394 (1955), and where the trial court had the opportunity to weigh the evidence firsthand, we will not disturb its decision absent proof of abuse of discretion, lack of supporting evidence or clear error of law. See Appeal of Scott Township, 31 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 505, 377 A.2d 826 (1977).

At the hearing, John Kulzer testified for the taxpayers, and John K. Ellis on the taxing bodies' behalf.*fn8 Both experts relied to varying degrees on the

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 127]

"income analysis approach"*fn9 and "market data approach"*fn10 in appraising the properties' values. In addition, Ellis also employed the "reproduction cost approach"*fn11 for the declared limited purpose of verifying his overall valuation opinions. An exhaustive analysis, however, of the record reveals glaring weaknesses in Ellis' testimony. For example, Ellis, in employing the "income analysis" valuation method, significantly altered the properties' actual expense items.*fn12 Furthermore, there are numerous dissimilarities

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 128]

    in the "comparables" utilized by Ellis in his "market data" analysis.*fn13 In addition, Ellis, although admittedly relying on both the income analysis and market data techniques, was unable to ascribe the respective weight given to each in his final analysis.

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 129]

The trial court must decide on the basis of competent, credible and relevant evidence, the properties' fair market value. Deitch Co. at 224, 209 A.2d at 403. Faced with conflicting expert testimony, the trial court determines the weight of each.*fn14 See Marx v. Page 129} Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review, 31 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 496, 377 A.2d 199 (1977). In this case, the common pleas court, confronted with sharply contrasting valuations,*fn15 weighed the evidence and calculated the parcels' respective valuations.*fn16 There being no discretion abuse, paucity of supporting evidence or legal error, we sustain the trial court's fair market valuations.*fn17

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 130]

II

We now decide whether the predetermined 50 percent assessment to market value ratio is uniform. It is constitutionally embodied*fn18 that a taxpayer should pay no more than his fair share of the cost of government, see Deitch Co. at 220, 209 A.2d at 401; hence, the assessment of the taxpayer's property must conform with the taxing district's common level of assessment. Regardless of the purported (or, in this case, the predetermined) assessment to market value ratio, where the taxpayer shows that other properties are assessed at less than the officially-proclaimed ratio, he is entitled to a reduced assessment which reflects the ratio actually applied to other properties. See Appeal of Mt. Lebanon at 510, 416 A.2d at 601.

In tax assessment cases, the assessment is prima facie valid where the taxing body presents the assessment record into evidence. See McKnight Shopping Center, Inc. v. Board of Property Assessment, 417 Pa. 234, 237, 209 A.2d at 389, 391 (1965). The taxpayer then must respond with credible, relevant evidence in order to rebut successfully. See Deitch Co. at 221, 209 A.2d at 402. In this case, the taxpayers contend that the trial court erred twice: first, by accepting the predetermined assessment to market value ratio in light of allegedly uncontradicted evidence demonstrating a lower ratio; and second, by excluding

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 131]

    from evidence the results of certain computer studies which allegedly demonstrate a lower assessment to market value ratio by comparing sales prices for properties in the county to tax assessments of those same properties.

As to the first claim, Dr. Charles Blocksidge, Director of Assessments for Allegheny County, as the taxpayers' primary witness, identified two memoranda which he had prepared based on data compiled by the County Computer Department. The first memorandum contained a sales assessment ratio study generated by a method known as the Pennsylvania Assessments Uniform Program, or "PAUP," technique.*fn19 The report was introduced to demonstrate the relationship between the sales prices of real property in the county between 1974 and 1976, inclusive, and the 1978 assessments of these properties.*fn20 The second memorandum compared 1978 assessments to real property sales throughout the county for the years 1974 through 1977, inclusive.

Under cross-examination, Blocksidge admitted that the Board had not authorized these studies; that he was not responsible for assimilating the data, nor did he know who was responsible; that he had no personal knowledge of the data collection process; that he was not the computer records' official custodian; and that he did not supervise the sampling of the

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 132]

    computer records.*fn21 The witness also testified that, without further refinement,*fn22 these memoranda would have very limited value in calculating the exact assessment to market value ratio within the county for the period in question. Although admitting these memoranda into evidence, the court below noted their limited reliability.

We conclude that the common pleas court exercised properly its discretion by not assigning great weight to Blocksidge's testimony.*fn23

The taxpayers' second contention relates to the exclusion from evidence of the results of county-sponsored computer studies allegedly indicating the ratio of sales prices to assessments of properties throughout the taxing district. The taxpayers called John Saunders, the County Director of Computer Services, but he had no personal knowledge of the compiled data nor was he acquainted with the meaning of the studies' terminology. Rudy Bizon, a County Department of Computer Services supervisor, also testified for the taxpayers, but he did not participate

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 133]

    in the studies' programming and could not vouch for the competence of the individuals who had compiled the data or who had fed the information into the computer. Finally, Fred J. LaPointe, Jr., who had been employed previously by the County's Department of Computer Services, testified that, in designing the computer studies, certain minimum and maximum sales price limits were established, which resulted in the exclusion of a large number of actual sales from the studies.*fn24 LaPointe also indicated that the data used in the contested analyses were developed as part of a process for reviewing various assessment programs offered by several vendors of computer systems. The data were collected and used primarily to evaluate and compare the various computer programs, and only incidentally to prepare an examination of the assessment to market value ratio for properties in the county.*fn25

We conclude that the common pleas court properly excluded the computer studies from consideration. Although admittedly any competent evidence of the overall current ratio based on sales within a taxing district may be introduced, see Appeal of Mt. Lebanon at 511, 416 A.2d at 602, we concur with the trial court that these studies lack the requisite competency and credibility. None of the taxpayers' witnesses was

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 134]

    personally familiar with the subject data, nor could they vouch for the accuracy of the information compiled or the trustworthiness of the individuals responsible for programming the data into the computer. Furthermore, these studies excluded a large number of actual real estate sales transactions in the county.*fn26

The taxpayers' contention that these studies should have been admitted into evidence under the purview of the Uniform Business Records Act*fn27 (Act) is meritless. Since the study was undertaken primarily as a developmental model for judging competing computer program proposals and not for the compilation of data to be used by the county for any of its normal governmental functions, we conclude that it was not made in the "regular course of business" as required by the Act. Further, the Act gives the tribunal the discretion to determine whether or not the "sources of information, method and time of preparation were such as to justify its admission." We have held that:

The Act does not make all business records competent regardless of the manner in which and the purpose for which they were compiled. Rather, the Act imposes specific requirements

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 135]

    which must be met if the evidence in question is to be admitted. (Citation omitted.)

Ceja v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 41 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 487, 489, 399 A.2d 807, 808, aff'd, 493 Pa. 588, 427 A.2d 631 (1981). Testimony can be disregarded by the tribunal if, in the exercise of its discretion, it finds the offer to be incompetent or incredible. McKnight Shopping Center, Inc. at 240, 209 A.2d at 392. We agree that the studies' informational source and preparation method lack the very basic, yet paramount, requisite that evidence be credible and legally sufficient to be admitted, and conclude that these studies were excluded properly.*fn28

The taxpayers' final contention is that the trial court erred by excluding all deed books for the subject years and all assessments for the same years as evidence of the prevailing assessment to market value ratio.*fn29 The taxpayers argue that these documents provide the court with all the necessary information for establishing the prevailing assessment to market value ratio, which the court could then calculate

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 136]

"by the use of simple mathematics." The evidence was excluded as placing an undue burden on the court below. The record indicates that the assessment books alone comprise nearly 3,300 volumes which, by estimate, weigh four and two-thirds tons and would occupy one thousand cubic feet! We agree that the mere offering of these documents into evidence is not an acceptable method of proving the assessed value to market value ratio. To hold otherwise would place an unnecessary burden on an already over-taxed judiciary.*fn30 There being no duty imposed on the trial court to undertake this monstrous task,*fn31 we conclude that the exclusion of these documents from evidence was proper. Since the taxpayers failed to respond with credible, relevant and competent evidence refuting the uniformity of the predetermined ratio, the taxing bodies prevail. See Deitch Co. at 221, 209 A.2d 402. Having failed to sustain their burden, the taxpayers cannot expect the trial (nor our Court on appeal) to prove their allegations.

Affirmed.

Order

The Allegheny County Common Pleas Court orders, Nos. G.D. 78-3833, G.D. 78-3834, G.D. 78-3835, G.D. 78-3836, G.D. 78-22089, G.D. 78-22090, and G.D. 78-22091, all entered April 25, 1980, are hereby affirmed.

[ 67 Pa. Commw. Page 137]

Judges Mencer and Palladino did not participate in the decision in this case.

Disposition

Affirmed.


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