Supreme Court Undermines Act 47 Coordinators’ Authority

A recently announced momentous decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has severely limited the power of Act 47 to impose steps aimed at helping financially distressed municipalities return to fiscal stability.

 

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Allegheny’s Never Ending Assessment Fiasco

After years of delaying tactics and losing in court cases, in the spring of 2009 Allegheny County was told by the PA Supreme Court it must do a countywide property reassessment. After months of dawdling in reaching an agreement with Judge Wettick, to whom the Supreme Court had given the responsibility of overseeing the reassessment, the County finally agreed to a plan in December of 2009 that would get the new assessments done and in place by January 2012. As late as February of 2011 County officials were assuring the Judge they were on track to meet the January 2012 deadline. But in the spring they began singing a different tune-the assessments would not be ready until April 2012 or maybe even later.

Municipalities and school districts in Allegheny County now find themselves in an awkward situation because of the need to send out tax bills for 2012 not knowing what the true tax liabilities are for property owners because assessments are very likely to change-in some cases dramatically.

Pittsburgh schools say it could cost them a $1.5 million because they will need to borrow $60 million to meet expenses because of the delay in getting out tax bills. Other districts could face nightmarish scenarios of having to figure out additional charges or refunds for folks whose assessments move significantly up or down relative to the average change in the district.

This clearly did not have to happen. The Judge should not have allowed six months to be used up in 2009 waiting on the County to come up with a plan to start reassessing. This is not rocket science. Those months were lost because the County dragged its feet, used dilatory tactics and the Judge failed to drop the hammer on the County sooner and get the process underway within a couple of months of the Supreme Court ruling. After years of denying equity to County taxpayers, there was every justification for refusing to accept any further foot dragging. Those lost months would have been enough to ensure the job was finished by January 2012. And if not finished on time, contempt of court citations and steep fines should be handed out to county officials. That threat has not been used and now we see the impending fiasco for 2012.

What a way for the new County Executive to take office. Rest assured, the final chapters of this deplorable and unnecessary saga have not been written. Both candidates for the job have indicated they will fight the reassessment despite the Supreme Court’s order. Does anyone have a problem with an official taking an oath to obey the laws of the state when that official has pledged to ignore a Supreme Court decision?

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.

Is Wettick Waffling?

"We’re here because of the Supreme Court’s mandate to me"-that’s what Judge Wettick said to legal counsel representing the County and opponents of the base year on September 15th, the first hearing following the PA Supreme Court’s April 2009 decision that struck down Allegheny County’s base year. That’s pretty strong language that one would think meant the wheels would be put in motion for fixing an assessment system declared unconstitutional by the state’s highest court.

At the same hearing, the Judge noted "Unless the parties are able to agree [on a time frame and method of reassessment], a hearing will be held" to determine how to get the reassessment completed. There was no mutual agreement, so the matter proceeded to the October 19th hearing in front of the Judge.

At that hearing, two weeks ago today, the Judge heard testimony from the County on why a reassessment would take two years and from the opposing legal counsel on why it can be done sooner rather than later.

So what’s been the holdup for the last two weeks? Consider that the Judge himself has written in previous decisions that the County should have been using the time to get resources ready for a reassessment. Why not take action on the 19th after it was clear that the County and the opposing counsel could not come together on a time frame?

A Court Decision the Executive Likes

After a series of court rulings that have gone against Allegheny County government, the Supreme Court finally reached a decision the Chief Executive approves of. In the case of whether taxpayers should be allowed to vote on cutting the drink tax, the Court held that under state law only the governing body has authority to determine tax rates. That means voters will be denied the opportunity to express their wishes about the matter.

The decision is one the County will gladly go along with, unlike several court rulings on assessments to which the County has basically thumbed its nose. Indeed, the Executive was quoted as saying, "I am glad the Supreme Court resolved the issue in the manner it did." Contrast that with the response to the Supreme Court ruling in April that ordered the County to reassess properties because its base year scheme was unconstitutional. In that instance, the Executive had attorneys looking into whether the County could sue in Federal court to have the decision overturned and asked the Legislature to, in effect, have the Supreme Court ruling set aside by legislative action while the General Assembly came up with a new statewide plan for property assessments. What an absolutely catastrophic action that would be for constitutional government.

Thus far the County has pursued delaying tactics in abiding by the Court’s decision. Earlier lower court decisions have been totally ignored for four years at least. And now comes a ruling against the people’s right to have a say about taxes and the Executive is pleased about it. Go figure.

On the referendum issue, we have urged and continue to urge the Legislature to repeal the statutory language that places governing bodies’ power above that of the electorate in determining tax rates through referenda. There is no step more important in controlling runaway, excessive government spending than allowing taxpayers to have authority through referendum to approve rate hikes or order rollbacks of existing tax rates.