A local legislator has asked for a meeting with the state Department of Community and Economic Development with the aim of Washington becoming the pilot county for reassessment legislation recently signed by Gov. Tom Corbett.
The governor signed what was known as Senate Bill 66, and it is now known as Act. 2 of 2013.
In a letter sent late last month to Barry Wickes, director of legislative affairs for DCED, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, wrote, “The ongoing situation regarding the reassessment in Washington County requires our immediate attention.”
Since the state Supreme Court last month nixed the county’s appeal to avoid reassessment, the county commissioners have said they are “reluctantly” seeking proposals from reassessment vendors.
The signing of Act 2 “creates some serious logistical and legal concerns which need to be addressed in a relatively short time frame,” White wrote. “I am formally requesting a meeting to discuss a reassessment pilot program for Washington County. DCED could provide technical, operational and other assistance to ensure the guidelines in the new law are being properly implemented.”
The act, county Solicitor Mary Lyn Drewitz said, requires identifiable standards and contract provisions for reassessment firms and the development of a manual of how to do a reassessment.
Citing an anti-windfall taxing provision in state law, White wrote, “I also want to ensure we are all lockstep in our understanding that the reassessment process should not and cannot be exploited by taxing entities in a way that would result in unlawful property tax increases.”
Meanwhile, there was a flurry of activity late last week in Washington County court as the attorney for the Washington and McGuffey school districts prepared for an assessment-related contempt of court proceeding against county officials.
Susan Key, who represents the school districts, asked that county officials produce documents and answer questions under oath in advance of the June 4 hearing date.
Commission Chairman Larry Maggi referred a request for comment to the county’s legal team.
The county’s special counsel, Robert Grimm, brought a motion to protect the commissioners, Revenue Department Director Debbie Bardella, Chief Assessor Bradley Boni and his predecessor, Robert Neill.
“It’s our position that it’s overkill,” said Drewitz. “It’s not like they’re new to the party, and there is no surprise that is new to discover.”
She said Key and other attorneys from her firm have been active participants in assessment litigation for a five-year period.
“What they hope to accomplish by all of these discovery requests is puzzling,” Drewitz said, discounting Key’s attempt to “streamline” the hearing.
“I suggest the whole story needs to be told. If it takes all day to have a hearing, then it takes all day to have a hearing. We sent out requests for proposals. There is nothing more that you can do once you send out a request for proposals.”
County Solicitor J. Lynn de Haven said, “Sue Key has lived this case. How can there be something she doesn’t know? It is simply to harass.”
Drewitz echoed a concern that the commissioners have often expressed about the county spending $8 million for a reassessment and then possibly learning that, because of a change in the law, “We’d have to do it all over again because it didn’t comply. There are many counties that should reassess; however, their school districts haven’t sued them.”
Key said of the county officials’ fight against a finding of contempt of court, “We are entitled to engage in discovery of information prior to a hearing. The purpose of discovery is to expedite court proceedings, encourage a fair trial and discourage surprise. Our intent was simply to prepare for the hearing and not to embarrass or annoy any person or party.
“As for the comment that we have lived this case for five years, I would point out that the current commissioners have never testified in court. The only statement on the record by (two of) the current commissioners” is an affidavit Maggi and Diana Irey signed in 2008.
Key pointed out that President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca ordered in June 2011 that the county hire a vendor within five weeks.
“Yet, at a press conference on March 19, 2013, Commissioner Maggi said, “Let me reiterate, we do not want to reassess. We’re doing everything within our power not to reassess.”
Greg Biernacki, an attorney in Upper St. Clair who handles propererty assessment appeals mainly in Allegheny and Washington counties, said of Act 2, “I don’t think it’s going to be the silver bullet the commissioners seem to think it will be. There’s no enforcement mechanism. It doesn’t have any teeth.
“It still doesn’t tell you how to do a reassessment,” he added. “The bill does not mandate anything. Why not do the reassessment the way you want it done? Reassessment, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It has to be done properly. Reassessments are needed periodically. You don’t have to do a reassessment until your reassessment is bad, which they are in Washington County right now.”
Of the Washington and McGuffey school boards’ decision to go to court to force a reassessment, Biernack said, “I don’t blame the school districts for doing what they’re doing.”