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Judges Delay Hearing Objections To Lawsuit Seeking Reassessment

November 30, 2018

SCRANTON — A panel of three Lackawanna County judges delayed hearing objections today to a lawsuit by three Scranton residents aiming to force the county to conduct a countywide property tax reassessment.

The judges — Judge Tom Munley and senior Judges Carmen Minora and Robert Mazzoni — said the plaintiffs first need to show they have properly notified the state Attorney General’s Office of the existence of the lawsuit filed in July.

Because the lawsuit raises a state constitutional issue, the Attorney General’s Office could claim jurisdiction or choose to join the case now, but even if not, any eventual appeal may draw in that state agency, the judges said. They want the court record of the lawsuit to include a plaintiffs’ certification that the Attorney General’s Office has been served with formal notice of the complaint.

“We figure it’s going up (on appeal by either side), so let’s send it up with a clean record,” Minora said. “Maybe they (AG) will want to come in on appeals.”

An attorney for the county, John Dean of the Elliott Greenleaf law firm, also raised the issue of notice in a footnote in a recent opposition brief.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Marielle Macher of the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit civil legal assistance organization, said her firm did serve notice of the lawsuit on the Attorney General’s Office, and now will file in court a certification of service.

“Until it’s on the record, we don’t have mojo here,” Minora said of that certification. “This is strictly procedural, not substantive.”

A hearing won’t get rescheduled until some time in January at the soonest, the judges said. It will be the first hearing in the suit, which has widespread and significant implications affecting 111,000 properties in the county.

Plaintiffs Brian Skotch, Annette Holmes and Ronald Monroe claim the county’s half-century-old property tax assessments — with a base year of 1968 — are unconstitutional and have created a “disproportionate and extremely regressive tax burden.” The suit claims the county’s assessment system violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Uniformity Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the county to implement a reassessment.

In objecting to the suit and seeking its dismissal, the county argues the plaintiffs did not first pursue an administrative remedy — individual property tax appeals. The plaintiffs counter the state Supreme Court already has held that because individual assessment appeals affect only the properties immediately before appeals boards, they are no substitute for a constitutionally uniform property assessment.

Contact the writer: jlockwood@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9100 x5185; @jlockwoodTT on Twitter

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