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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fitzgerald: Without statewide tax reform, "I'll go to jail" before sending out tax reassessments

Posted By on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 7:21 PM

Most political junkies know that one of the Republican candidates for county executive, Charles McCullough, is facing a date with a judge

What you may not know is that one of the Democratic candidates, Rich Fitzgerald, says he's willing to be hauled into court as well. For the good of the people, of course.

It's no secret that Fitzgerald, the county council president, opposes the ongoing reassessment of county property values. He's on record saying that reassessing propery values in Allegheny County is unfair, since nearby counties haven't reassessed their residents' homes in decades.

Still, I was surprised to hear a pledge Fitzgerald has been making on the campaign trail. As Fitzgerald put it during a political gathering on the South Side last week, if the state doesn't ensure a uniform reassessment process in all 67 counties, "[Y]ou have my commmitment that next year, those bills will not go out."

At least, that's what my notes tell me he said. At first, I was a little unsure I'd gotten that right. As Chris "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" Briem has pointed out, the property tax issue has been litigated for years now. The state Supreme Court has upheld the operative part of Judge Stanton Wettick's court order to carry out the valuations. So is Fitzgerald saying that -- if elected to the county's highest office -- one of his first acts would be to buck a ruling upheld by the state's highest court?

Well, yes.

I called Fitzgerald yesterday, and he confirmed it: "If I'm the county executive, I won't send the bills out, unless [reassesment] is done statewide."

Um. Can he actually do that? Wouldn't he be in contempt of court or something?

"I guess they could throw me in jail," he says. "And if they do, I'll go to jail. I will not send those bills out if this isn't addressed."

(ADDED: This seems an obvious point, but while contempt of court can result in incarceration, fines are a more likely penalty.)

Technically, Fitzgerald wouldn't really be spiking your bill: He'd be refusing to mail the certified valuations your bill is based on. The reassessed valuations are to be sent in January. And they're what taxing bodies will use to levy their taxes on next year. Fitzgerald, then, would effectively be freezing values at the current level.

To be sure, Fitzgerald says a courtroom standoff would not be his first choice. He notes that Democrats in the state House have proposed a measure requiring the state to solve "the vast inequities of property assessments across this Commonwealth." The bill, which is similar to one that died in the Senate last year, also imposes a moratorium on any future reassessments until the issue is addressed. (The legislation does allow counties "currently conducting a court-ordered countywide reassessment" to continue it -- but that's purely "at the discretion of the county.")

The bill is currently backed by Democrats, but Fitzgerald thinks the GOP will likely feel some pressure to support it as well. He notes that  Mike Turzai, the House majority leader, represents affluent suburbanites in the North Hills -- areas that will likely see steep increases in their tax bills under a reassement. Fitzgerald figures that the moratorium is going to look pretty good to Turzai's constituents.

Failing a legislative solution, Fitzgerald says the county should appeal the reassessment back to the state Supreme Court -- again. Fitzgerald says that in previous litigation, the county's attorneys didn't push county-to-county disparities hard enough. "The gubernatorial race came into play" he surmises: County Executive Dan Onorato was running for governor and "didn't want to be responsible for a [court ruling that required] reassessment in Erie and Fulton counties."

And what if neither the state Legislature nor the courts take action? 

Says Fitzgerald: "Assuming Plan A and B don't work -- which I think they will -- we'll go to Plan C." 

Fitzgerald allows that he might send out the bills -- if county council passes a measure requiring it and overrides his veto. But barring such action, he says, "I don't think [Wettick] is right. This should be in the hands of the county executive and county council." 

What's more, he adds, "Everywhere I go, municipal officials are passing resolutions saying, 'No, don't reassess.'"

Fitzgerald allows that freezing current values will hurt some communities -- especially hard-pressed places like Braddock, where actual property values have fallen precipitiously since the last assessment, but the tax burden remains unchanged. Still, says Fitzgerald, "The same problems exist in every county. We need to fix this statewide." 

But can a local official really just decide not to play ball until the rules change?

"You can always decide not to comply with the law," says Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor with a background in local government. "But there are often unpleasant consequences." 

Mistick notes that if Fitzgerald did throw up a roadblock to the assessment process, a number of things could happen. The plaintiffs who sued to require the reassessment could file a mandamus action, which compels governmental officials to take actions they are duty-bound to execute. Or a judge could find Fitzgerald in contempt. 

Mistick doesn't think the Supreme Court will hear this matter all over again, however. "It's very rare that a court rules on a matter but then changes its mind because you say, 'Hey, come on.'" 

But ultimately, Mistick doesn't expect to see Fitzgerald clapped in irons, either. "I don't think this is a good governing strategy," he says. "But it might be a good election strategy."

And if it helps pressure Republicans like Turzai to ensure statewide tax fairness this year ... Rich Fitzgerald will have pulled off a major coup before even being elected.

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