Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Behind the Bubble | Special Primary Double Edition

Special note: Due to the upcoming primaries, BtB will appear in May as a special double edition.  We will then be taking June off, and return in July with the second half of this year’s BtB.

Craig Grella to Run Unopposed in Primary – To Face Bob Fischer for Open Ward 4 Seat
By Jason Margolis

For Grella, this election is as much about decision-making processes as the decisions themselves.  As Commissioner, Grella plans to use his technology background to make the MTL government more transparent and responsive to the community as they work through important community issues.

Grella believes that the MTL Commission needs to do an overall better job of communicating with the public.  He commented, “They do this when they make a decision, but they need to do a better job of communicating not just the decision but the thought process leading up to the decision.  They need to do this more often and more open.”   Specific areas Grella is targeting for improvement includes more letters to the public, more open forums, and improvements in a “website that needs to be much better … it is outdated, and needs to be more open and accessible.”

While Grella has recently worked with technology in the non-profit community, the Pennsylvania State Democratic party, as well as volunteering for the ACLU, he is now ready to serve the MTL community he has lived in for 5 years.  With his children now here in the MTL community, Grella said he “will be best be able to have a say in and impact local policies through the commission.”  Additionally, sitting commissioner Dave Brumfield is not running again.  Grella described Brumfield as “relatively popular and has done a pretty good job” and that he would not have challenged him in the primary.

Grella on the Issues

On the issue of deer management, Grella says he has “No issue with lethal control of deer,” although at the same time he believes that “As a commission, we can do a better job of exhausting non-lethal options.”  Nevertheless, Grella has “no problem with the way the commission has voted so far.”  At the same time, Grella is open to a change in policy if the data is there to support it.  He said, “We need more measurement and analytics in place to understand what is working and what is not.  DVCs are going up, we need to know more.  If it isn’t working, we need to pivot.  We should not just stand on ceremony.”

As for taxes, Grella compared MTL to his experiences on Long Island, saying, “In Suffolk County, we had more taxes.  And we get more here in MTL in terms of services and school district.”  Grella said that when considering issues like taxes, you must weigh: risk vs. reward and benefit to the community vs. cost.  “Some services you have to pay for,” he added.  In regards to the highly controversial MTL Newcomers Tax, Grella said that “The Commission needs to be clear when they are going to re-assess, and the real estate agents need to be clear that a sale can trigger a reassessment.  And it should be in the documents.  Also, people need to understand what their rights are.  The Commission needs to tell people how to appeal, and assist them.”

On the issue of artificial turf, Grella said, “I probably would have voted for it – I was an athlete myself.”  He sees the investment in artificial turf as similar to the investment in Mt. Lebanon High School.  He added, “We have to do some things like that to maintain [MTL’s] stand-out status.”

As for PAYT, Grella said that while he is “not completely against it,” he has many concerns.  These included that it “doesn’t pay except for a small subset of people in MTL,” and that without the collective bargaining MTL can have with other municipalities, there can be astronomical increases for individual residents down the road.  “I have lived in areas where this happened,” Grella added.

The Bigger Picture

As Commissioner, Grella is looking to increase communication – with the individual resident and with the entire community.  As for individual residents, Grella said that “A Commissioner must get back to the resident no matter what, even with a past history.”  More broadly, Grella said he “would love to see a community forum – an on line community forum that is moderated by the commission.  With community input, and partnership with community leaders.”

Grella added, “We need more interaction between the community and the commission – and not just at the meetings.  But not for bitching – to move things forward, with break out groups.  To build coalitions, which is not happening, but it should … We’d find we are not so different, but right now we are very polarized.”  

Emphasizing that most of the issues the community faces are not partisan issues, Grella said he believes that “Even though we live in an increasingly partisan world, we have to be able to separate that when we come to make sure our communities are safe and economically viable.”


Anonymous said...

Some scary stuff in Mr. Grella's statement.

First one, if Mr. Brumfield were running again he wouldn't run against him. Basically, I guess should he win he'll pretty much be following Brumfield's agenda then?

He then talks about the commissioners and the newcomers tax. Mr. Grella, the commissioners do not assess properties, they have no authority to reassess properties. The commissioners can only appeal assessments, the county does the reassessments.

The biggest warning flag for me though are his thoughts on public information. He wants more letters coming out of the public information office. An expansion if you will and that sounds like more spending. What I don't read in his position is anything remotely related to lowering cost through things like combining the two PIO offices.

Lastly, he refers to building coalitions. Isn't that what brought us to where we are now. It seemed to start with the BOSN and Lebocitizens coalitions battling against each other and grew from there.

I do like his view on PAYT though, it should be interesting to see who will win in the end should he and Lee both get elected.

Anonymous said...

Grella is not ready for prime time.

Anonymous said...

Elaine and Jason---

Thank you for all the hard work you do to keep Mt. Lebanon informed about important issues. The pieces on Lee and Grella were revealing and well-written.

I appreciate your efforts.


Craig Grella said...

Anonymous from 7:05. I'm well aware of how the sssessment process works. The problem is not of assessment but of transparency. If a new homeowner buys a property and is not diligent in researching taxes he or she will get a surprise a few months after moving in. This is mitigated by those involved with the process being more open about that process and the last time the property assessment was triggered. I myself sat across the table from an agent this weekend and admittedly she told me when I asked how recently the property had been assessed and what the taxes were she said "I don't pay attention to that stuff usually the mortgage guy will do that for you." I asked her what the millsge rate was. She fumbled with a calculator for a minute until I told her. That is a disaster waiting to happen for any new homeowner. One of my neighbors fell victim to similar process. He bought a house on our street that had not been reassessed in years. He's a teacher and was shocked when he found out his mortgage was going to cost several hundred more just a few months after moving in and settling on a budget.

Community forums and a better web presence shouldn't increase cost to the municipality too much, if at all. I believe the openness and additional information provided would provide a service that would welcomed by the community. Of course, if there is cost we would need to weigh that against the benefit provided by that service. I think mr margolis captured the spirit of how I covered the topic of weighing cost and benefit for everything.

Anonymous said...


"Specific areas Grella is targeting for improvement includes more letters to the public, more open forums, and improvements in a “website that needs to be much better … it is outdated, and needs to be more open and accessible.”

Sounds like he's making a pitch for expanding the public information office, doesn't it?

More letters to the public. More open forums. A more open and accessible website!

Damn, if that doesn't sound like Elaine's blog and website I don't know what does. AND it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime.

One might argue that her blog has its biases, but they cannot say Editor Elaine doesn't allow for both sides to speak and make their cases as opposed to the PIO pitching the commission narrative.

Anonymous said...

“The Commission needs to be clear when they are going to re-assess, and the real estate agents need to be clear that a sale can trigger a reassessment. And it should be in the documents. Also, people need to understand what their rights are. The Commission needs to tell people how to appeal, and assist them.”

Just to echo the above comment, Mr. Grella appears to be quite ignorant on the property tax system, yet he still made statements on how things should be. I think that's foolish. Mt. Lebanon already has an information page on their website regarding property tax appeals and the criteria they use for triggering an appeal is on the website. And the Commission needs to assist people in appealing the appeal of their assessment by Mt. Lebanon? Mt.Lebanon appeals the assessment to increase it. Why, in an adversarial system, would Mt. Lebanon help the people they hurt by initiating the appeal in the first place? Again, Mt. Lebanon already has information on the process regarding the BPAAR, BOV, etc.

Also, good luck convincing real estate agents to scare away potential buyers by informing buys their taxes might get jacked up after purchase.

Anonymous said...

I hope that Mr. Grella does not include the current PA Dems website as one of his achievements. That website is awful.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Grella,

With due respect, you appear to have no idea how the property assessment works based on your comments from the post and your comment here. All properties in Mt. Lebanon were assessed in 2012. Allegheny County has 2012 base year. Mt. Lebanon and many other jurisdictions do not assess properties. Mt. Lebanon appeals properties based on several criteria. See this: http://mtlebanon.org/DocumentCenter/View/10833

The "last time the property assessment was triggered" as you stated is irrelevant and your probably shouldn't be lecturing real estate agents on the process when you clearly are uninformed. You need to look at the current assessment and potential purchase price and compare those to the criteria in link above. Mt. Lebanon has changed the criteria a few times, but it's been the same the last couple of years.

"He bought a house on our street that had not been reassessed in years. He's a teacher and was shocked when he found out his mortgage was going to cost several hundred more just a few months after moving in and settling on a budget." Again, everyone's house in Mt. Lebanon was effectively assessed at the same time. Also, the mortgage is not going up because of taxes. The escrow payment will eventually go up, which is often lumped in with the mortgage payment.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Grella, appreciate your response though I must disagree.
Transparency is pretty much on the table at the bidding process.
IMO If you buy a house and pay some large amount for it over the assessed value and those of its comparables if the difference is greater than the threshold set by the commissioners you're going to get nailed.
The comissioners can change that threshold for their appeal at any level they wish. A fact discussed here on this blog on numerous occasions, i.e. why did a home underassessed by say 9% get appealed and one underassessed by 8% didn't. Both homeowners aren't paying there fair share sort of speak.

The problem with property taxes lies with the whole system of assessing a value to property using something other than what two parties (buyer/seller) agree it is worth.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Grella, the assessment, amount, dates, comparables and appeal info appears on the Allegheny County website. Can't get more transparent that and if you agent doesn't know that or take you to the site, I'd recommend finding a new agent.

As far as telling when the next reassessment will occur, who knows. Currently, I believe Allegheny County if shooting for every five years but some are pushing for annual reassessments.

Anonymous said...

Well said 10:42!

Anonymous said...

Wonder what being a teacher had to do with his neighbors reassessment problem? If he weren't a teacher it would not have been a problem?

Anonymous said...

A teacher shocked that his property tax went up!
Cry me a river... try paying for those higher taxes when you didn't get a pay raise or are living on a fixed income.

Does he not comprehend that those higher property taxes go towards his salary increases?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Grella's comments where he says "a sale can trigger a reassessment. And it should be in the documents" points out a glaring flaw in the property assessment system.
He's only correct that a municipal appeal will occur (not a reassessment) from a sale if that sale price is a certain percentage over the counties assessed value on that property and its comparables.
If the sale was at the assessed value or lower the municipality wouldn't touch it. The buyer would have to appeal the county's assessed valued.

So the problem is that supposedly assessed are based on comparables at the time of the reassessments for everyone, but after that the municipality can declared the real value of the home is the newcomers purchase price. Government can't have it both ways and have an equitable system.

In any case Mr. Grella cannot reassess property as a commissioner. He can only decide at what point he'd like the municipality to appeal. You can be sure in his view that government should be our great protector he wouldn't push the municipality to appeal assessments that were too high to help the homeowner.

Anonymous said...

11:40, it's not just about salary increases that higher taxes are paying for from the newcomers tax and the additional millage increase. As I'v mentioned before, we have a current debt bill of over $34,000,000. We need on average close to $3,000,000 each year until 2025, roughly $1,600,000 each year thereafter until 2030 and roughly $700,000 thereafter until 2032 to pay this off. And that's just current debt assuming we add no new debt.

The municipality also keeps our overpaid taxes otherwise known as unassigned funds in which they currently have $5,200,000 of. This is basically a slush fund in which pet projects are paid from.

I wish these candidates would share their thoughts on this. Because Mr. Grella reads this blog, maybe he can chime in. Why did the municipality have to impose a .20 millage increase if they didn't have to? Why were $116,980 of unassigned funds (taxpayer money) passed to the ice rink just because they were shut down for a few months? Was this really necessary?

Nick M.

Anonymous said...

Nick--Am I reading this right? $34 million is our current debt? What? That's outrageous.


Jason Margolis said...

S - it is the main reason why MTL's bond rating has tanked. For point of comparison, see my April BtB interview with the Green Tree mayor.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Grella, you're a computer guy do home buyers really need more explanation of the assessment process than this?

What more could your real estate agent tell you?

"The 2012 Base Year values contained herein have been provided by the Office of Property Assessments. The values are for the property as it stood on January 1 of the current year. However, the assessed values are not to be interpreted as current market values. Allegheny County uses base year methodology. Allegheny County’s current base year is 2012 with an effective date of value of January 1, 2012. The website is updated on a daily basis to reflect changes due to appeals, permits, corrections and/or catastrophic loss.

Base Year values are subject to ongoing maintenance throughout the year. In accordance with the County's Administrative Code and State statutes, values may be adjusted for the following reasons:

The Office of Property Assessments can adjust Base Year values through the administrative change process for factual, mathematical or clerical errors.
Base Year values can also be adjusted due to a change in the physical nature of the property with building permits for additions or demolitions, or due to recorded subdivision plans.
The Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review and the Board of Viewers are separate entities from the Office of Property Assessments with the authority to hear appeals and make decisions that can change assessed values. The property owner and the taxing bodies are notified and the appeal decisions are regularly posted on the website.

All property data have been provided by the Office of Property Assessments and do not include minor, detached structures such as garages, swimming pools and sheds that may be assessed to the parcel. Sales prices are for the latest recorded sale and may not reflect invalid sales such as sheriff sales, love and affection sales or multiple parcel transactions. In the case of newly constructed buildings, the amount of the sale may reflect only the purchase of the vacant land. Therefore, sale-to-assessed-value comparisons can be misleading."

Prospective new home buyer or not, every property owner potentially could see their assessed value raised at any time.

Took me all of about 30 seconds to find the county's information on the internet.