Bankruptcy for PAT? Councilman Agrees with Institute

A member of County Council plans on introducing a resolution this evening that, if approved, would call upon the Governor and the General Assembly to permit the Port Authority to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Right now, under Pennsylvania law only municipalities are able to file for bankruptcy, so it would take an act of the Legislature to extend such ability to an authority like PAT.

It is an idea the Allegheny Institute first raised in a Policy Brief this past November (see Volume 10, Number 65) for the reason that the legacy cost burden for PAT was so severe "benefits" would soon be outpacing "wages". With transit workers preferring layoffs to benefit concessions and enjoying the right to strike, PAT management is left with the choices of cutting service and/or raising fares. The resolution states that "…the best interests of the Port Authority of Allegheny County and the County’s residents may be served by seeking the protections afforded by Chapter 9…"

Federal bankruptcy law allows states to permit or forbid bankruptcy filings by their local governments and to place as many pre-conditions on filing as they wish, including defining which types of local governments can file. In Pennsylvania filing is restricted to municipalities and the conditions are laid out in Act 47. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have additional pre-conditions upon them. Since the PA Constitution prevents revocation of already granted benefits by ordinance or statute, the bankruptcy court would be an avenue under which the Authority could get pensions and benefits under control.

So will Council pass the proposal? Who knows. Given the fact that the Council stands ready to implore PAT to spend all of its bailout money ASAP they seem content to think that the state will be ready to rush in with more money. Unfortunately, recent history has proven that line of thinking to be accurate.

Did Legislators Stop By for Moratorium Meeting?

In a blog from mid-February we wrote about a meeting of the County Council’s Government Reform Committee on the issue of a state moratorium on court-ordered reassessments, an issue that keeps bouncing around Council. That meeting invited the Governor and 31 state legislators (8 state senators and 23 state representatives) to discuss the issue.

We closed that piece with stating "a sure sign of how serious legislators from the County take the Council’s request will be reflected by how many show up to the meeting".

Well, how many did? The corresponding action minutes from Council’s website show that the Governor did not attend, nor did anyone from his staff. No state senators showed up, but a staffer for a senator’s office did. Two elected state representatives showed up, and so did staffers for four other representatives. With seven legislative offices present of the 31 invited, the attendance rate was 23%. Not a stellar showing.

If Council can take any consolation it would be that their own attendance rate was somewhat better. Of the nine members of the committee, three showed up and were recorded as present. That’s 33%, better than the invited list but no great shakes either. One Council member not on the Government Reform Committee showed up as well.

Moratorium Needed on Calls for a Moratorium

Allegheny County Council is on the verge of taking up legislation that would instruct the Council’s solicitor to ask the courts to halt the reassessment ordered by a local court and the Supreme Court until the state reforms assessment laws. The argument is that it is unfair to force Allegheny County to reassess when so many counties across the state are not under court ordered reassessments. According to their reasoning Allegheny County should be off the hook until the Legislature and the Governor rewrite state law to force all counties to bring their assessments up to date.


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Cognitive Dissonance Reigns in Councilman’s Pronouncements

For the umpteenth time the County Council President has labeled the property assessment system as flawed while arguing the assessments in place currently should be unchanged. How’s that for consistent logic? If the Councilman is convinced that assessments can never be done accurately, then he is saying the current values probably contain many huge errors-something the lawsuit against the County demonstrated conclusively to the judges leading to court orders to re-assess. How then can he, in good conscience, be part of a government that imposes and collects taxes knowing the inequities in the assessments?

As part of County government that levies taxes on property purportedly based on its market value, the Councilman has a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that values used to determine the amount of tax owed are as accurate as possible. Defending known gross errors in assessed values and fighting to keep them in place is a dereliction of duty of the highest order.

By going further and spreading the false premise that everyone’s taxes will rise after a re-assessment and claiming that tax bills are being held down by keeping the existing known flawed assessments in place is the height of fatuous political rhetoric. As such it reveals a stunning absence commitment to the principles of good governance and disrespect of basic rights of citizens.

If this is the attitude of people sworn to uphold the law in Allegheny County, which includes obeying judges’ rulings, it would be entirely appropriate for the state to remove the property assessment responsibility from the County or alternatively disallow the power of governments in the county to levy property taxes.

Resign to Run: How Common?

"A County Council member shall not be a candidate for nomination or election to any elected political office other than that of County Council without having first resigned from County Council"-Allegheny County Home Rule Charter, Article III, Section 6, b.

This provision has attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks in Allegheny County. Two members of County Council, the Council President who has already declared that he is running for County Exec and a Council member who is interested, have criticized the rule. The former stated "I am going to follow the law, but quite frankly I don’t think I should have to" while the latter opined that the "…provision was unfair and may be unconstitutional". Note that the Council President did not say "I think the Home Rule Charter provision is wrongheaded and should be changed" but instead intimated that he just does not want to follow it. It is also worth noting that a question changing requirement was put on the ballot twice in 2003 and rejected both times. A bill passed by Council in 2006 to define what was meant by "candidate" but the Executive vetoed the bill and promised to support a ballot measure which never materialized.

City Council, which does not have a similar requirement, had a brief dalliance with the "resign to run" concept when a member proposed a ballot measure; it was quickly defeated. City Council’s president felt that extending the "resign to run" requirement to only Council members would be "unfair" as it would not apply to the Mayor or Controller.

A look at the Pew Center study referenced in yesterday’s blog shows that three cities they studied have "resign to run" requirements (Dallas, Phoenix, and Philadelphia). Like Allegheny County, voters in Philadelphia rejected overturning the stipulation when it was put on the ballot in 2007. County Council, like Pittsburgh City Council and Philadelphia City Council, are not subject to term limits either. Eight cities do have them, including San Antonio which has a lifetime limit instead of a consecutive one that permits members to run again in the future.

One would hope that a primary tenet of any office holder is the belief they should obey and should want to obey the law. That is how a government of laws and not of men works. If a law is unjust or stupid, work to repeal it but an elected official should never say they don’t think they should have to follow the law. Where does that lead us and what message does it send? Public office is not the place for civil disobedience. This is not some petty, throwback law either, it is a requirement placed on Council by the Charter, solemnly adopted by the voters of the County. If the laws as written cannot be respected by a candidate then they should not be seeking office.

More Amusement (sadly) from County Council

How’s this for twisted logic. The Council Chair who has disobeyed Common Pleas Court orders and openly decries and maligns the Supreme Court order requiring Allegheny County to re-assess real property now wants the County to bring a lawsuit against state statutes governing property taxation and assessment. The suit would seek to have the state system declared "broken"-whatever that means-and ask the court to order the Legislature to fix it.

One must wonder at the audacity of a person who has been so critical and disrespectful of the court system and their rulings on assessments who now wants the same courts to side with his argument that the state assessment system is "broken" and order new legislation to be passed.

In the first place, the Supreme Court has already addressed the issue. It has decided not to rule against the use of a base year as being unconstitutional per se. The court ruled that each county’s experience must be judged as to whether the base year produces unconstitutional results. Granted most probably will, but that was not viewed by the court as sufficient to declare the base year unconstitutional, only as it applied in Allegheny County. Thus, it is highly improbable the Supreme Court-where a Council suit would eventually land-will rule against itself. Moreover, unless the Court allows a King’s Bench Warrant and agrees to hear the suit quickly, the case would have to work its way through many months or years of lower court proceedings. By that time Allegheny County will have completed the re-assessment currently underway.

Finally, the Supreme Court is unlikely to order the Legislature to rewrite assessment laws. The Court ordered the Legislature to fund local courts years ago and that has not happened. Why go that route again? The Court has issued a ruling that can be used in other suits brought against other counties’ assessment systems. Allegheny County’s precedent can be used by courts in other counties to overturn assessment systems if the evidence proves egregious and biased assessment errors. For now that is the only remedy available.

If the Legislature would take its responsibility seriously, it would reform the state’s out of date assessment laws to require regular re-assessments. But there is little interest in doing that so the Court rulings will have to be the principal route to getting fairness in the assessment systems. For the most part, local elected officials have no more stomach for taking on the issue than the Legislature does making the courts the only option. Fortunately, there is now a precedent that can give plaintiffs hope.

All told, the push by Council Chair to seek changes through the courts is both ironic and sad in light of the disdain for the courts he has repeatedly demonstrated. The claims of unfairness by the Council will fall on deaf ears. What is unfair in all this is the County government’s willingness to leave grossly inequitable property assessments in place for so long.

Fumbling County Government

When the sitting County Executive announced last week that he will not run for reelection (under the Home Rule Charter an Executive can serve a maximum three terms) the President of County Council noted that the Executive’s decision is "…almost like the Steelers losing Troy Polamalu.".

Steeler fans know all too well the effects of missing its starting strong safety: as of the 2011 season the Steelers posted a losing record (5-7) without Polamalu in the lineup. Backups have not gotten the job done. Hard to do for Pro-Bowl players.

So what is the Council President saying? Surely he meant to praise the current Executive, but in so doing he seemed to be demeaning candidates running in the spring and all subsequent holders of the office. It becomes all the more curious when one realizes that the President is likely to be one of those candidates. It makes one wonder if anyone is worthy of the office going forward.

Should the Council President run and win, should he be viewed as a lackluster imitation of the current Executive? If he does not take the office (either by opting not to run or running and not winning) will he treat the successful winner as stepping into shoes they will never be able to fill?

Bill of Rights to Correct Past Assessment Wrongs?

If the efforts of one member of County Council is directed toward eliminating "sticker shock" from new assessed values that will go into effect in January of 2012 through a homeowner "bill of rights", it should be known that the window of opportunity for minimizing the impact of new assessments was lost when the County opted to toss out the planned values for 2006 and adopted a base year plan that used 2002 values.

For those who recall the recent history of Allegheny County reassessments, a history that we documented in pieces over the last few years, the County released new assessment numbers in early 2005 so that taxpayers could absorb their value, have a year to appeal, and have values in place for 2006 for taxation purposes. That would then be followed by annual reassessments in 2009 and years thereafter, thus minimizing the shock taxpayers would undergo when they received a mailing from the County’s Office of Property Assessments.

Those 2005 numbers were described as "uniform and accurate" by the County’s chief assessment officer but were tossed out in favor of other schemes before the County settled on the base year plan, a plan that was later overturned by the PA Supreme Court.

Now with the legal matters settled and the coming year revealing the results of the reassessment, the Council member proposes a variety of fixes for the assessments. Some the County could do (raise the homestead exclusion, assign County employees for on-site verification of property value disputes) while others seem questionable and could put the County in a familiar place, namely the courts of law (phasing in the impact of large increases over several years, compelling payments from municipalities and school districts on appeals of properties). Not mentioned in the "bill of rights" is the fact that the County could commit to a revenue neutral windfall after the reassessment, even though it is permitted to take 105%.

With all the machinations the County has attempted to circumvent its duty in assessing real property, isn’t it time to simply follow through with the process? After all, those that have been greatly underassessed have for many years paid far less than their fair share of taxes, forcing those who are correctly assessed or over assessed to pay higher taxes than they should have paid. When does that subsidy end?

Sunset Review Redone?

Realizing that the County’s departmental sunset review is well overdue (the Charter requires one every four years, yet the Manager’s office has not completed one since July 2003) three of the Republican members of Council (the Council is responsible for taking action on the Manager’s recommendations in the review) have put forth an ordinance that would get the ball rolling on this fundamental duty.

Under their proposal the Manager must have the review that was due in July of 2007 done in six months from the effective date of the ordinance. The Manager would then have to submit a departmental evaluation schedule by October 1 of this year. Each department would have to be reviewed at least once every four years (it could be reviewed more than once in that time period) and the schedule would have to be communicated in writing to the Executive and the Council. The due date for the sunset review would be July 1 of 2011 and every four years thereafter. If a review cannot be done, a six-month extension would be granted.

Currently the Charter and the Code prescribe no sanctions for failing to have a sunset review on time. The proposed ordinance would tie Council’s role in confirming or denying appointments to the completion of the review, disapproving of all new and pending appointments to County authorities (PAT, Airport, Housing, etc.) until the review is received.