Judge orders county to move ahead with reassessment

December 13, 2012
O-R file photo Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca delivers opening remarks during the annual Law Day Celebration held Tuesday night, May 22, 2007, in the Washington County Courthouse. The event is sponsored by the Washington County Bar Association and Washington County Bar Foundation.

Calling the four-year-long Washington County property reassessment saga “tortured” and “a classic illustration of technical maneuverings and frivolous delays” by the county commissioners, President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca ruled Thursday that the county must reassess all real estate.

But Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi’s initial reaction was that special counsel Robert Grimm intends to take the county’s case either to the full Commonwealth Court, to the state Supreme Court, or both.

The president judge ordered the county and Washington and McGuffey school districts to “fulfill the obligations” pursuant to a contract they entered into Nov. 25, 2008, via a stipulation and order.

She wrote that the county has “clearly intended to frustrate the administration of justice and operations of this commonwealth’s courts.”

Last week, Commonwealth Court quashed the county’s appeal in the reassessment case on a technicality, saying the county was late in filing an appeal. The parties appeared before O’Dell Seneca Tuesday, which resulted in Thursday’s order and 12-page opinion, in which she wrote, “It is as if the county’s appeal was never filed … This case is clearly over.”

Susan Mondik Key, attorney for the pair of school districts, echoed the judge’s words, saying Thursday, “I kind of think they’re at the end of their rope.”

Should the county continue to delay a reassessment, Key said, “The commissioners should be worried about being held in contempt, personally surcharged for the delays in the increased cost of the assessment, and attorney’s fees.

“A county commissioner has very few enumerated duties under the law, but one of those duties is to reassess periodically to assure uniformity in taxation. The school districts’ position all along has been to treat taxpayers fairly so that nobody is paying more than their fair share of taxes. By not having a reassessment for more than 30 years, the commissioners have failed to meet their obligation as elected officials.”

As to attorney’s fees, Key declined to name a figure, and as to a surcharge, Key said, “I’m not going to personally say I’m going to file a surcharge against them, nor have I been instructed to by my clients.”

Key said her interpretation of the judge’s Thursday order is that the commissioners need to hire a vendor within five weeks. The county interviewed three vendors in 2009, but it’s doubtful that prices quoted more than three years ago would still be valid.

The commissioners have estimated that a reassessment could cost about $8 million.

Washington County began its last property reassessment in 1979, sending out tax bills reflecting the new figures in the summer of 1981.

Maggi, reached for comment before he had a chance to read the latest legal development, said Grimm was “exploring all possibilities. We’re going to see where we’re at.”

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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