Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald was not held in contempt of court Tuesday for defying a judge’s order and nullifying the 2012 reassessment numbers.
In fact, Judge Stanton Wettick indicated that nothing was likely to happen to Fitzgerald if he did it again. The same can’t be said, however, for any of his underlings who choose to follow the orders of Fitzgerald over those of the judge.
Wettick sent a stern message in form of an official court order to the Allegheny County Manager, the Chief Assessment Officer, the director of Administrative Services and the manager of the property assessor’s office that regardless of what order might come down from the chief executive’s office, the only order that matters is Wettick’s.
Wettick wrote that those officers "shall perform their duties professionally in implementing existing and future orders of the court regarding the reassessment and they shall not engage in or cause any actions to be taken that are inconsistent with the completion of the reassessment..."
Further Wettick wrote: "Noncompliance with this court order may result in contempt of court proceedings. In a contempt of court proceeding it will not be a defense that any Allegheny County Official gave instructions that would interfere with compliance..."
Wettick started off the hearing dealing with a motion by attorney Donald Driscoll to hold Fitzgerald in contempt of court for last week sending out certified tax valuations using the old reassessment data and not the new 2012 numbers.
The judge said he found no basis for contempt findings against Fitzgerald and said "the responsibility lies with me to closely define the responsibilities of the county officials" when it comes to administering the reassessment. He then issued his order which basically makes Fitzgerald powerless to make a decision about which numbers are to be used by municipalities to calculate their tax rates.
In other matters, Wettick heard a request from the Pittsburgh Public Schools to delay the reassessments until 2013, The district contends that a large number of assessments will be lowered following the appeals process and because state law restricts how much tax the district can levy, setting the tax rate before appeals are exhausted could leave a large hole in the district’s 2012 budget.
Wettick seemed sympathetic to the plight of the district, however he’s also a strong proponent of reassessment in Allegheny County because of the disparity in property values — the undervaluing of some homes and the over-valuing of others. Wettick says half of the property in Allegheny County is undervalued by 30 percent and half is overvalued by 30 percent.
"That is a huge difference," says Wettick. "What we have are smaller homes and probably people with smaller incomes are left paying more than their fair share and without property reassessment it creates more and more inequity.
The Fitzgerald statement reads as follows:
"This order is just more evidence of the Court overreaching its bounds," said Fitzgerald. "This is an unelected judge, who is not even standing for retention and chose, instead, to go into senior judge status, who is now acting as the executive and legislative bodies of this county."
At the 2 p.m. hearing, the Court ordered that "…the County Manager shall fully, efficiently, and promptly implement existing and future court orders issued by this Court regarding the reassessment of real property within Allegheny County." Additionally, according to the order, the Chief Assessment Officer, the Director of the Department of Administrative Services and the Manager of the Office of Property Assessments are not to engage in or cause any actions that are inconsistent with the completion of the reassessment. Noncompliance may result in contempt of court for those officials and they may not use as a defense that they were given instructions by any Allegheny County official.
"If the Court believes that removing the elected officials from this process and requiring county staff to report to him directly will result in my stopping this fight -- the Court can think again. I was elected, as was County Council, to make policy and legislative decisions for this county. I took an oath to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth, not go around them as the Court is dictating that the staff to do, by pushing forward with this reassessment.
"I can assure tax payers that we are evaluating this order and will continue to explore each and every avenue that is available to fight this Allegheny County-only reassessment."