Legislator Permitted to File Special Legal Brief on Behalf of County Taxpayers in Reassessment Case
The court granted permission for state Rep. Jesse White to file the brief, which would support the Washington County Commissioners' motion to temporarily halt a countywide property tax reassessment.
Washington County Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca granted a state Rep. Jesse White's request to file a special legal brief to discuss pending and recently passed legislation that would support the Washington County Commissioners' motion to temporarily block an $8 million county-wide property reassessment.
White, D-Cecil, said in a release that asking the court for permission to submit an "amicus curiae" brief—which means "friend of the court"—is highly unusual for a case at the county level.
Although such briefs have been permitted in other counties in Pennsylvania, this may be a first for Washington County, White said.
In his petition, White claimed "the extraordinary ramifications of this case on the people of Washington County more than justify the extraordinary relief requested herein."
"The Legislature has collected testimony of countless experts telling us this process is flawed, and how a reassessment under the current system puts taxpayers and small business owners at risk of huge property tax increases," White said. "I'm filing this brief on behalf every taxpayer who is tired of their money being wasted on inefficient government bureaucracy. It doesn't make sense to force Washington County to conduct a reassessment when the state is actively working to fix well-known problems with the system."
White added that legal fees for the lawsuit have already cost taxpayers nearly $30,000—on top of the $8 million cost to conduct the reassessment.
Washington County supported his petition to file the brief, while McGuffey and Washington School districts sent three attorneys to court to object to the request, the legislator said in a statement.
"The fact that these school districts sent three lawyers—paid with taxpayer dollars—to try and prevent me from explaining why it is in the best interest of those same taxpayers to hold off on a reassessment is disheartening and fails the smell test," White said. "We should be working together to close loopholes to protect taxpayers instead of battling in court, especially when the taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill. This is beyond ridiculous."
White is a licensed attorney who prepared and presented the petition himself at no taxpayer expense, a release stated.
Washington County is under a court order to conduct a property reassessment as the result of lawsuits filed by the McGuffey and Washington school districts. The commissioners argue that the reassessment should not take place until the Legislature makes changes to correct flaws in the reassessment process, which are anticipated in the coming months.
"Over the summer, legislation was approved to begin the most significant property reassessment reform in decades," White said. "Hopefully, this brief will help the court realize what these school boards and their high-priced lawyers refuse to: that a poorly executed reassessment is a disaster waiting to happen for Washington County taxpayers, and the best approach is to put an end to these costly lawsuits and work together."
For the past year, White has helped author legislation that would have imposed a temporary moratorium on countywide property tax reassessments in Washington County. That bill was passed by the legislature but vetoed by Gov. Tom Corbett.
In addition, he and state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, successfully won the Legislature's approval of two bills (H.Rs 343 and 344), which have established task forces to study the county reassessment process and develop uniform standards among other things to streamline the system.
The task forces' findings will be released by the end of 2011. White and Neuman have also authored several other reassessment reform bills which are still pending in the Legislature.
Reached Monday afternoon, Susan Mondick Key, who represents the schools, said both districts objected to the brief.
She declined to comment further.
Note: To view the order and petition, click on the attached PDF files.