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Attorneys want fair payout for denying Jeannette businessman use of properties

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

The attorney for a Jeannette businessman has asked a Westmoreland County judge to ignore the city's financial plight when deciding how much it should pay in damages for denying him use of properties because of back taxes, according to a court filing.

Attorneys for Frank Trigona and the city filed closing arguments last week with Judge Richard McCormick Jr., who will determine how much Jeannette owes Trigona in the dispute that began in 2005.

The city denied Trigona occupancy permits for two buildings he owns because he owed Jeannette back taxes. The award would cover lost rent and revenue on a building that Trigona had rented to Seton Hill Day Care and a tavern he operated on Clay Avenue.

Attorney Robert Lightcap said the “dire economic consequences” Jeannette faces, and whether the city can meet those financial obligations, should have no bearing on McCormick's decision.

“As citizens of Westmoreland County, we all are aware that the current financial condition of the city should not be attributed to either Frank Trigona or the resulting litigation,” Lightcap wrote.

“Despite being the 'elephant in the courtroom' in these proceedings, it is obvious that under Pennsylvania law, the city's ability or inability to satisfy a resulting judgment for damages is irrelevant and should not be considered.”

In 2005, Jeannette passed an ordinance denying occupancy and health permits to any landlord who owed the city money. A judge overturned the law in 2006. The city appealed, but Commonwealth Court upheld the lower court ruling.

Trigona is seeking $560,000 in damages while the city counters the damages Trigona incurred total no more than $76,500. In addition, Lightcap wants the city to pay him $153,000 in legal fees.

City attorneys Scott Avolio and Gary Falatovich said Trigona failed to prove the actual monetary loss during the time period in question. They questioned how Trigona's losses were calculated and said the determination failed to account for the fact that the buildings were unoccupied for 12 to 14 months, which would affect the amount of losses.

They argued that Trigona tried to “blur” the value between the time the law was enacted and the date he claimed the city's decision actually impacted him financially.

The city asked McCormick not to award any legal fees to Lightcap, arguing the amount is unreasonable. While conceding that it is solely up to McCormick to determine what are “reasonable” legal fees it may have to pay to Lightcap, the city “submits it should not be required to pay Trigona's counsel to manufacture them,” the attorneys wrote.

Jeannette has struggled to pay its bills for several years and has been on the verge of being declared financially distressed and subject to state oversight. Council hoped to end 2012 with a balanced budget but will finish the year $250,000 in the red.

The city will borrow $350,000 in January to help pay bills and meet payroll for the first several months of the new year until tax revenue starts coming in.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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