Judge requests assessment progress report

December 21, 2012

Although the Washington County commissioners decided Thursday to take the countywide property reassessment case to the state Supreme Court, they have yet another date in Washington County Court.

President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca ordered attorneys for the county and the Washington and McGuffey school districts, who are seeking the reassessment, to appear before her for a status conference Jan. 23 and present a progress report.

After a relatively quiet year on the four-year-old reassessment front, there has been a flurry of activity during the past month.

The judge convened several conferences on reassessment since the school districts took legal action in 2008, but this is the first scheduled since she chastised the commissioners for their “technical maneuverings and frivolous delays” last week.

In an opinion and order, O’Dell Seneca said the parties must fulfill their obligations as expressed in a Nov. 25, 2008, contract that required the commissioners to complete reassessment during their then-current terms of office.

“This case is clearly over,” O’Dell Seneca wrote just last week, but wrote in a footnote the terms the commissioners were serving when the reassessment matter first went to court were done Jan. 1, 2012, and “the county has yet to take the first steps of reassessing. So much for proceeding ‘diligently with the intention of completing said reassessment’ by that date.”

The commissioners announced Thursday they will petition the state Supreme Court to hear their case, but Susan Key, attorney for the Washington and McGuffey school districts, said Friday the county also has applied to Commonwealth Court for reargument or reconsideration. The court’s online docket shows the county filed that application Tuesday.

“There’s nothing left to appeal,” Key said.

The commissioners had previously said they were considering taking the case back to Commonwealth Court or petitioning the Supreme Court.

Commonwealth Court declined to decide the case on its merits, but threw out the county’s appeal on a technicality Dec. 5, saying its lawyers appealed the wrong order of Washington County Court and missed a deadline on appealing what it considered a proper order.

The commissioners claim it will cost $8 million to reassess real estate countywide, and Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said he doesn’t want Washington to be the last county to reassess under what he called a “broken” system.

Key takes another view. “Every county in Pennsylvania is different,” she said, opining that heavily forested counties in the northern tier with small populations wouldn’t need to reassess as often as Washington, which has seen the development of a casino and a slew of hotels in the commercial sector and “McMansions” in Peters and North Strabane townships’ residential neighborhoods since 1979, when the county last began a reassessment.

The county sent out its first tax bills from that reassessment in 1981.

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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