Prop. values up, millage rate down

Posted 1/3/23

HONESDALE, PA — The last time Wayne County reassessed its property values, George W. Bush was still in office, the Motorola RAZR was the hottest cell phone on the market, and Mark Zuckerberg …

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Prop. values up, millage rate down


HONESDALE, PA — The last time Wayne County reassessed its property values, George W. Bush was still in office, the Motorola RAZR was the hottest cell phone on the market, and Mark Zuckerberg had just launched “The Facebook” from his dorm room.

The world has changed a great deal since then, and so has rural northeast PA. Wayne County’s recently completed tax reassessment—the first one in 18 years—has revealed that property values in the area have risen substantially since 2004.

This reassessment was “revenue neutral,” meaning that the total amount of taxes the county collects in 2023 cannot exceed its 2022 collections. To remain revenue neutral despite the notably higher property values, the county commissioners adopted the 2023 budget with a millage rate of 3.24, nearly two mills lower than the previous year’s rate.

Commissioner Jocelyn Cramer said that the bulk of residents, about 60 percent, will pay about the same or less in taxes this year compared to last year.

The millage rate and reassessed property value together determine how much each home and business owner in the county pays in property taxes. For example, if a property in Wayne County is valued at $100,000, at the 2023 millage rate of 3.24, the owner would pay $324 in property taxes.

Why reassess?

As things change over time, so do the values of residents’ properties, commissioner chair Brian Smith said. Some homes become less valuable, some become more valuable.

“We’ve had communities that have lost their dams, and their lakes were drained,” he said. “These are properties that were lake-front properties that are now swamp-front properties.”

On the opposite side of the coin, some areas have become much more popular in recent years. Smith noted some of the “beautiful homes” around Lake Wallenpaupack are multi-million-dollar houses, yet were still being taxed at $500,000 and therefore “truly weren’t carrying their burden of tax.”

“Over a period of years… there were some really legitimate situations where people were being overtaxed, but there were also some very legitimate situations—many of them—where people were being way underassessed.”

Cramer, who was elected to the board while the reassessment was already underway, said that new construction in the county also has the potential to create disparities, sometimes between houses right next door to each other.

“Since the last assessment was 2004, anytime there was new construction coming on the tax roll, by law we were required to value that at the 2004 level,” Cramer said. “We’ve had an influx of people ever since 9/11, certainly during 2008 and 2009, and a lot of the new construction was higher-end, but was valued at half of what it should have been, because we were tied to those 2004 levels.”

Smith said that he and the other commissioners “have their thumb on the pulse” of how fairly or unfairly taxes are distributed throughout the county. Unlike some other counties in Pennsylvania, the commissioners sit on the board of appeals themselves, and listen firsthand to residents every year who feel they’re paying too much for one reason or another.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Wayne County has 100,696 acres of farmland. Here, cows graze in Orson, PA.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Wayne County has 100,696 acres of farmland. Here, cows graze in Orson, PA.

The process

The county first decided to carry out its reassessment in 2018; however, it’s not a project that can begin overnight, the commissioners said. Hiring an outside firm to carry out the process on its own would have cost upwards of $2 million, so Wayne opted for a hybrid model, using both in-house resources and a company called Tyler Technologies, which assists governments and others in the public sector around the world.

Using both county employees and an outside firm cost the county about $1.2 million to complete the reassessment.

Smith credited then-commissioner Joe Adams (who has since resigned after winning his race for state representative) for taking advantage of the bond market and refinancing bonds “to the point that it largely paid for not only but a lot of other projects that we needed to do around the county too… so it didn’t fall as a burden of tax on the people’s backs.”

Tyler and employees in the tax office had to determine the value of about 60,000 properties throughout 2022. Out of those, 1,800 residents appealed the number at which their properties were assessed through an informal appeal process, at first, followed by a formal appeal for those who still were not satisfied.

The commissioners said that there are still some—many of them owners of large summer camps in the county—who remain unsatisfied with their valuations and are currently taking the issue to the county court.

COVID, other concerns

Because the “urban flight” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the housing market in Wayne County to spike, some residents were worried that the commissioners decided to reassess property values in order to capitalize on the market.

Newly appointed commissioner James Shook said that since the commissioners had been planning this reassessment since 2018—well before COVID-19 was on the radar—it’s a “misconception” to believe that the pandemic was an influencing factor.

“I have four properties that are commercial, and I have three that are residential,” Shook said. “One of my commercials went up considerably, and my personal home went up, which I thought was fair… Overall, I think it was a really fair assessment, and I’ve seen it on both sides.”

Shook also noted that many of the newcomers from New York City or Philadelphia were buying up existing homes, rather than having new houses constructed, so he said that the latest influx was not such a significant factor.

Another major concern among residents throughout the past year, Smith said, was how the new assessment would affect the other taxes they pay each year.

“People were saying, ‘All of a sudden, our assessment’s super high, when we apply the millage rate of the school district, we’re going to get crucified,’” Smith said, but added that the county has been in regular contact with the school districts and municipalities to make sure that the proper adjustments are made. “The school districts are engaged in thinking about what their reductions are going to be, and they’ll be substantial, but they still have to get the revenue that they need.”

2023 budget, future appeals

The commissioners approved a $38.9 million budget for 2023, a 3.6 percent increase from last year. Smith said the increase was made to account for three main expenditures: salary increases, healthcare and other benefits, and the county’s retirement fund.

About 65 percent of the county’s budget comes from property taxes; the rest comes from state and federal grant funds, fees for services and miscellaneous fines. Wayne County had $1.3 million in carryover revenue from 2022 thanks to higher-than-expected inmate boarding fees and a $187,000 elections-security grant.

Cramer said she wants residents to remember that they can appeal their property values any year, not just during a reassessment. The commissioners said they encourage anybody who feels they’ve been taxed unfairly to come to the courthouse for an appeal.

“There are probably some mistakes out there,” Smith said. “And we want to correct them.”

reassessment, property values, Wayne County


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  • PScottA

    Attention Editor: "The historic borough of Honesdale, which strattles the Lackawaxen River, is the county seat for rural Wayne County, PA."

    Thursday, January 5 Report this