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Washington County takes first step toward reassessment

Jason Cato
| Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 11:57 a.m.

State lawmakers appear poised to pass a bill Wednesday that would revamp Pennsylvania's system of assessing real estate for taxes, which could reverse the fortunes of Washington County officials fighting a losing battle to stave off a court-ordered reassessment.

County commissioners on Tuesday all but prayed for intervention from Harrisburg, in the form of a new law or a Supreme Court reprieve, as they discussed why the county this week reluctantly began seeking bids to reassess after years of courtroom wrangling.

“I need to make it perfectly clear that we are 100 percent against reassessment,” board Chairman Larry Maggi said. “No matter what happens, I will not be a cheerleader for reassessment for numerous reasons. The system is broken.”

House members on Tuesday twice passed the measure, which has cleared the Senate. The bill could get a third consideration Wednesday, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.

The bill would form a statewide reassessment standard, a shared database and a training program, among other provisions, said state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil. He said he anticipates little opposition before the third passage that would send the bill to Gov. Tom Corbett.

“We're basically on the 1-inch line,” White said, “and the defense has left the field.”

Before a Tuesday court hearing on the reassessment, Washington County officials on Monday decided to advertise a request for proposals from companies interested in performing the reassessment. The county plans to contact three companies that expressed interest, lawyers said. Bids are due May 17.

Common Pleas Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca summoned officials to explain what actions, if any, they have taken toward starting the reassessment she ordered in 2011 and reaffirmed five weeks ago.

Though the judge cited a 2008 consent agreement, commissioners said they never agreed to start the process, only that they could.

“We have appealed every step we could,” said Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan.

The Washington and McGuffey school districts in 2008 sued to force a reassessment, which Washington County last conducted in 1981. County officials estimate it could cost more than $7 million to reassess values of 118,000 properties and say the figures could become obsolete within a few years.

The state Superior Court in December rejected an appeal by the county, which then appealed to the state Supreme Court. The high court has not acted.

School district officials and their attorney said they remain frustrated.

“I think this is another delay tactic,” said Susan Key, the lawyer representing the districts.

Key asked O'Dell Seneca to hold Maggi, Irey Vaughan and fellow Commissioner Harlan Shober in contempt of court and to force them to pay sanctions and legal fees.

The judge scheduled a June 4 hearing on those matters.

“It makes you lose faith in the court system when we've won many times over and the commissioners refuse to abide by those rulings,” Key said. “The county commissioners keep hoping someone will come save them.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7936.

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