Allegheny Institute: A Tax Ruling the Supreme Court Ought to Consider

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

It has been two and a half years since Judge Wettick ruled Allegheny County’s base year assessment system unconstitutional and ordered an updated assessment to be carried out. It has been six months since the state Supreme Court upheld Wettick’s decision as it applies to Allegheny County, ruling that the assessments were unconstitutional and must be updated. It has been almost seven years since the 2002 assessments were adopted for use in 2003, assessments that are still in effect and assessments the Chief Executive went to great lengths to label as incorrect. Nonetheless he chose to lock them in as the base year numbers to be used for the indefinite future.

Arguing that the 2002 numbers were okay since the appeal process had taken care of most of the problems, the Executive and County Council blithely adopted them as the County’s base year values. This action totally disregarded the huge number of under assessed properties. Obviously, people whose properties were over assessed will appeal—as well as some whose properties are correctly assessed in hopes of getting a reduction. But how many whose properties are under assessed will appeal and call attention to their situation? Not many. So to say that appeals have taken care of the 2002 assessment problems misses the boat entirely.

The net result is that people who are over assessed or correctly assessed must pay higher than their fair share of taxes to offset the underpayments of the properties whose assessments are too low.

Here’s the problem. The Supreme Court has said the assessment system in the County is unconstitutional. But thus far, the County has dragged its heels in fixing the problem, using endless delaying tactics. At a recent meeting of the parties to the lawsuit the County said that they would not be able to complete an assessment for at least two more years. And there is a bill pending in the General Assembly to enact a moratorium on reassessments until the Legislature can fix the system. This legislation, if enacted, would essentially nullify the Court’s decision.

What’s the Court to do? If it does not have enforcement power to see that the order to correct the problem is carried out, then someone should petition the Court to issue a ruling that unless and until the assessment system is fixed, property owners in the County do not have to pay property taxes beginning with a date certain, say tax year 2010. Or until the Legislature and the voters amend Article Eight, Section One of the Constitution (known as the "uniformity clause") using Constitutionally-provided procedures.

Assuming, as seems likely, the Court would be inclined to rule that taxpayers are not required to pay an unconstitutional tax, the Court could use another ruling to force compliance with the earlier ruling. How would the County or any other taxing body be able to use the courts to compel people to pay property taxes in view of the Supreme Court’s ruling?

The situation wherein elected officials ignore or use endless delaying tactics has to be stopped if people are to have respect for the rule of law. And since the judiciary must depend on the other two branches of government to abide by and carry out its decisions, when they refuse to comply, the fundamental and crucial balance of power in government is threatened. At that point the Court must assert itself as best it can. In this case a ruling that property owners cannot be required to pay property taxes until the County undertakes a good faith effort to abide by the multiple court orders that have been handed down should get the attention of taxing bodies and the County.

Continued affronts to, and disrespect for, the judiciary bodes poorly for the Commonwealth’s future. It must stop.
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President

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