Judge approves withdrawal of contempt hearing request in county reassessment case

August 28, 2013
Washington County's Courthouse Square office building

As expected, a hearing on whether the Washington County commissioners should be held in contempt of court for failing to conduct a countywide property reassessment was canceled Wednesday morning because the three-member board unanimously entered into a $6.96 million contract earlier this month with Tyler Technologies.

Outside the courtroom there was, however, backlash against a news release issued on behalf of solicitors for the Washington and McGuffey school districts, whose directors have sought the reassessment since 2008.

The news release from the Peacock Keller law firm took the county commissioners to task for having the reassessment stayed and filing “numerous frivilous (sic) appeals to delay the process.”

After pointing out the spelling error, county Solicitor Mary Lyn Drewitz defended her clients.

“It’s disingenuous to say that our appeals were frivolous,” she bristled. “That was never argued before Commonwealth Court.

“Commonwealth Court never ruled on it. The appellate courts never attacked any of our appeals as frivolous. They could’ve raised that. There could have been a ruling on it, there could have been a hearing on it.”

“Not once,” chimed in Robert Grimm, the county’s usually taciturn special counsel, who has, since his appointment in November 2011, steadfastly declined to speak to members of the media.

Drewitz continued, “Only once we had exhausted all of our legal and nonfrivolous, substantial argument were we forced to enter into a contract because there was nothing more that we could do legally at the appellate level, at the judicial level or through the Legislature and it was then and only then that we were without any other option, so we did not violate the law and the commissioners were not in contempt.”

In November 2008, the commissioners entered into an agreement to complete a countywide property reassessment by the close of 2011. Both Commission Chairman Larry Maggi and Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella gave depositions related to the contempt case over the summer.

“They suggested they would like us to withdraw,” said attorney Susan Mondik Key, who initiated legal action on behalf of the school districts five years ago. Kenneth Baker, one of the attorneys representing the two school districts, said after the hearing, “I think both of our clients are glad that they succeeded in finally getting some kind of action so that taxes will be fair in Washington County, so once they accomplished that, and make sure that it continues, they’re happy that that’s been resolved.”

Baker’s and Key’s colleague, Frank G. Adams, asked President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca to hold a status conference in six months, and he reserved the right to refile for a contempt hearing.

Drewitz noted after the brief court appearance that the court has retained jurisdiction over the reassessment, and that either side can request a status conference. She also said Tyler Technologies of Moraine, Ohio, will constantly “be in communication with the media (and) with people in the neighborhoods that they’re going to be reassessing.”

According to the county’s contract with Tyler, setting up the project office at the former Washington County youth detention center in Arden and preparing for clerical work is scheduled to take place in September.

After completing extensive field work, Tyler is to issue property owners notice of their new assessments by July 1, 2016. Tax bills based on the new assessments won’t be issued until Jan. 1, 2017.

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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