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If the Legislature would take its responsibility seriously, it would reform the state’s out of date assessment laws to require regular re-assessments.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.

County Officials Still Trying To Avoid Assessment Responsibility

An Allegheny County Council Committee has voted to instruct the Solicitor to file suit against the state Legislature in an effort to force it to enact a moratorium on reassessments and rewrite Pennsylvania’s property assessment laws. 

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Legislature Moves to Squash Tuition Tax

With 30 co-sponsors, a bill introduced by Rep. Paul Costa would ban the imposition of the proposed education privilege tax in Pittsburgh and preclude any other municipality in Pennsylvania from enacting such a levy. The highly controversial so called "fair share tax" has enraged students and prompted university officials to mount a serious opposition campaign. And rightly so. As we have pointed out in Policy Briefs over recent weeks, this tax is one of the worst ideas ever to arise out of Pittsburgh government.

But seeing the virtual certainty of widespread adoption of such a tax across the state if it is implemented in Pittsburgh, the Legislature is moving to stop the ill-conceived and damaging tax before it advances any further. The Legislature will have to move quickly or it might have to make the bill retroactive. Pittsburgh could decide in a week or so to pass the bill and it could stand up to court challenge under current state law.

And that means state law is severely flawed. Indeed, Act 511, which permits the consideration of such nonsensical taxes, must be reformed to narrow the range of permissible local taxes. So rather than simply passing a bill to ban the tuition tax, the Legislature should amend the governing statute to spell out exactly what can be taxed by municipalities, eliminating "privilege" taxes not specifically permitted by the statute. And there should be few, if any, of those.