School districts win a round in reassessment case; appeal quashed

December 6, 2012
Barbara S. Miller/Observer-Reporter Washington County solicitors Mary Lyn Drewitz and J. Lynn DeHavern learn details of Wednesday's Commonwealth Court decision on property reassessment via tablet computer at the Courthouse Square office building.

A Commonwealth Court judge ruled Wednesday on a procedural matter rather than issuing a decision on the merits of a case in which a pair of school districts are seeking a Washington County-wide property reassessment.

In his eight-page opinion and order, Commonwealth Court Senior Judge James Gardner Colins said the issue before his court was whether the county could seek an appeal of President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca’s order delaying a property reassessment.

“Because we conclude that the Nov. 15, 2011, order denying a motion for stay is not an appealable order, we grant plaintiff’s motion to quash,” Colins wrote, citing a rule that says Commonwealth Court lacks jurisdiction over the county’s appeal.

The appellate court reviewed the convoluted history of the assessment case, which has dragged on for more than four years.

On June 1, 2011, the trial court issued two separate orders, one denying the Washington and McGuffey school districts’ request that the court find the county commissioners in contempt for not having committed to reassessing property. In a separate order, O’Dell Seneca lifted a stay of her original Nov. 25, 2008, order to reassess.

“The trial court … ordered the county to take the necessary actions to enter into a contract to begin the countywide reassessment within five weeks. The county did not file any appeal from either of the June 1, 2011, orders,” Colins wrote.

It was not until Dec. 8, 2011, that the county filed an appeal of O’Dell Seneca’s order denying its June 2011 request for a stay, basing its appeal on an interim ruling the judge made in November of that year.

Once the county filed an appeal of that intermediate ruling, again denying a stay of the reassessment, a crucial deadline for appealing the June order had passed.

Scott Fergus, an attorney who is Washington County director of administration, said of Wednesday’s development, “The county has not yet received the Commonwealth Court’s decision from its legal counsel, Robert Grimm, nor has it had an opportunity to review the decision with him.

“Therefore, the county has no further comment at this time. We hope to meet with Mr. Grimm tomorrow at which time we anticipate we will be in a position to more fully comment on the court’s decision.”

The commissioners hired Grimm last November at a rate of $115 per hour to take their case to Commonwealth Court.

The county commissioners have balked at spending an estimated $8 million to have property reassessed, citing possible property tax reforms. The Legislature enacted an exemption to Washington County reassessment, but in July 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett vetoed it, claiming that a law crafted for just one county was unconstitutional.

Washington County last reassessed property in 1979, Colins noted. Tax rates took effect in 1981.

Attorney Susan Key, who represents the school districts, said she plans to be in court Tuesday morning before O’Dell Seneca on the reassessment case, asking the judge to impose a deadline on the county to enter into a contract with a firm that a would conduct the reassessment. She noted that a previous deadline, Nov. 30, 2012, the judge placed on the county commissioners, had passed.

“The county’s case has finally been dismissed,” Key said. “I don’t think they have any further avenues to appeal this.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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