Can Property Owners Be Required to Pay Unconstitutional Taxes?

Can Property Owners Be Required to Pay Unconstitutional Taxes?

In May, the Pennsylvania Supreme court ruled that Allegheny County’s base year property tax assessment system was unconstitutional because it produces severely inequitable results, forcing some property owners to pay more than their true market value share of taxes while others are paying less than the amount they should because their assessments are well below actual market value.

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Uniformity Clause, similarly situated taxpayers must be treated equally. That means if property taxes are based on "fair market" value then assessments must as accurately as possible reflect market values. That was determined not to be the case in Allegheny County and the Court has, in effect, ordered the County to carry out a revaluation of properties to reflect actual, true market values.

The House has passed a bill calling for a moratorium on court ordered re-assessments until the Legislature can write reform legislation governing property assessments in the state. The Senate is considering the bill. If it passes the Senate and the Governor signs it into law, we will have a Constitutional crisis with one branch of government saying "carry out a reassessment as soon as possible" and another branch saying "ignore the Court and wait for us to write an assessment reform bill"-which will happen about the same time pigs fly.

Thus, the question: in light of a Supreme Court decision that Allegheny County’s assessment system is unconstitutional, can property owners be required to pay property taxes until such changes are made in the system to bring it in line with the state’s Uniformity Clause? If a property owner in the County refuses to pay property taxes, on what grounds will the taxing bodies be able to argue that the person is in violation of a constitutionally permitted tax law?

And that is just the beginning of the state’s problems. Undoubtedly, the law will be challenged in court and will go directly to the Supreme Court where the ruling will be the law is unenforceable and the prior Supreme Court order must be obeyed. And then what?

One can only gasp at the willingness of the Legislature to issue such a challenge to the Court. A challenge that will not redound to the state’s credit and can only create further loss of respect for state government. The moratorium is not the way to deal with the assessment problem. Rather, the Legislature should get busy and write a reform bill that seriously addresses the state’s assessment shortcomings, which are legion.