Contempt back on table in Washington County reassessment case

June 4, 2013
Washington County's Courthouse Square office building

Despite the fact that Washington County officials last week opened three proposals from firms interested in conducting a property reassessment, the attorney representing the Washington and McGuffey school districts Tuesday obtained a court date for late August for the county commissioners to fend off a contempt case.

The county was hoping to forestall the contempt-of-court issue for at least 90 days while a committee, and then the commissioners, evaluate the proposals for reassessment.

County Solicitor Mary Lyn Drewitz said some of the county’s computer software has changed, and that may be the case for the three firms trying for the reassessment contract.

But President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca instead gave school District Attorney Susan Mondik Key the go-ahead to schedule depositions of a county commissioner and Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella, who also holds the appointed position of director of the revenue department, which includes the assessment and tax claim offices.

After the hearing, Key identified commission Chairman Larry Maggi as the likely candidate for a deposition from his three-member board. No commissioner was present in court Tuesday.

“We will probably depose Commissioner Maggi because he’s been most vocally opposed to the reassessment,” Key said.

Maggi said he’d be discussing the case with county solicitors on Wednesday morning and added, “My whole life is about following the law. If a lawyer wants to take me into court, politics doesn’t have anything to do with it. Washington County has economic development, people are buying houses here, they come here to be entertained. Do we want to throw a monkey wrench into all of that?

“At no time will I be a cheerleader for a bad law. I will not say it’s good and proper. I have been threatened with contempt of court as a state trooper and as sheriff, but I have not yet gone to jail for contempt of court.”

Bardella is not named as a defendant in the reassessment case and she, therefore, is not a candidate for a contempt finding.

“It appears the assessment office is getting ready to proceed with a reassessment and they’re getting direction from the commissioners telling them, ‘Not yet,’” Key said. She previously did not rule out seeking a surcharge against the commissioners for failing to carry out an official duty, but Tuesday, she said only that the school districts intend to “seek sanctions.”

“There hasn’t been a delay since December,” protested the county’s special counsel, Robert Grimm.

But the judge, noting that the school districts and commissioners came to court in 2008 with documents that she signed, retorted, “That’s a delay.”

Washington County’s last reassessment took effect in 1981. The judge told the commissioners she expected them to complete a reassessment during their then-current terms of office, which ended at the close of 2011. In December 2008, Maggi, Commission Vice Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan and then-commissioner Bracken Burns submitted an affidavit to the court stating, “The parties agree that the Sept. 30, 2009, date, as moved by (the school districts) by which to initiate the real estate re-evaluation process is reasonable.”

Despite the threat of contempt of court almost exactly two years ago from Tuesday’s proceeding, the 2011 deadline came and went. Harlan Shober replaced Burns on the county commission in January 2012.

“It was troubling that they believe they need another 90 days to review things that have come in, because they admitted these were some of the same vendors who submitted bids back in 2009,” Key said after hearing.

Those submitting proposals were Evaluator Services and Technology Inc. of Greensburg; Pearson’s Appraisals of Richmond, Va.; and Tyler Technologies of Moraine, Ohio, and Dallas, Texas. No costs were revealed, because a contract is subject to negotiation.

Key said after the hearing that O’Dell Seneca gave the commissioners “until Aug. 16 to review those, so they could possibly purge themselves of some contempt if they come in here Aug. 28 with a signed contract with a vendor. If nothing is done by Aug. 28, that bolsters our request that sanctions be imposed for the delays.”

The commissioners contend that a reassessment would cost taxpayers as much as $8 million, money that would be wasted if the state changes the law on property reassessments.

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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