Jeannette could owe damages for denying permits

| Friday, Nov. 13, 2009

Now that a Westmoreland County judge ruled the city of Jeannette overstepped its authority by denying building permits to a city businessman, city officials must decide on their next move.

Judge Daniel Ackerman issued a ruling Nov. 3 in favor of Frank Trigona, who has been involved in a feud with the city since 2005. That's when council decided not to issue health or occupancy permits to property owners who owed taxes or municipal service fees to the city.

City Solicitor Jack Cambest said city council has two options. It could appeal Ackerman's ruling or it go before a board of view for a ruling on whether the city owes damages to Trigona, at an amount to be determined.

Damages, if assessed, would date from May 16, 2006, when the city notified Trigona it was denying his permits, until March 6, 2008, when the state Supreme Court denied a petition by the city appealing a Commonwealth Court ruling, according to Cambest.

Officials fear an award to Trigona could cripple the city, which has an annual budget of $4.9 million.

"There's no way in God's green earth that the city can take a hit like that," said Stella Rebitch, city clerk.

That determination will be made by the board of view, a three-member panel overseen by the local courts that rules on property assessment appeals and condemnation and eminent domain cases.

"Judge Ackerman's decision only determined whether or not there was a regulatory taking," Cambest said. "Damages only come into play if the city takes an appeal. Did (Trigona) actually lose anything• We're not even at that step yet. It could be there are no damages. It could be there is X amount of damages."

Cambest said council would discuss the issue at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in city hall.

Trigona owns property on Fourth Street that he rented to a day care center. In addition, he operated a tavern on Clay Avenue, which was closed by the city March 12, 2005. At the time, former code enforcement officer George Lender determined the tavern failed a health inspection and did not make required corrections.

Trigona said he made the repairs. But city officials refused to issue a health permit because Trigona owed more than $10,000 in taxes at the time. Trigona currently owes the city more than $81,000 in taxes, records show.

Lender said at the time that Trigona's health license had expired, triggering an investigation of the bar.

Police reported several incidents at the bar, including underage drinking, alleged drug activity and the discharge of a weapon inside the bar. It was deemed a nuisance bar by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

The city also argued the Fourth Street property was extensively damaged in a storm in 2005 and Lender ordered the building vacated as a safety precaution.

Westmoreland County Judge Jay Ober overturned the city ordinance in 2006, a decision affirmed in 2007 in Commonwealth Court. The city went to state Supreme Court, which refused to hear the appeal.

In 2006, Selective Insurance Co. told the city it was under no obligation to continue to provide a defense in the case.

City officials said they could not provide any figures on how much has been spent on legal fees in the case, although insurance did not cover some of those costs.

Trigona declined comment Thursday.

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