Onorato complains about court rulings
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Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato complained about the courts meddling in county business yesterday after two recent rulings went against his office.
He called a news conference, he said, because he wanted to "express a little frustration in trying to govern and constantly having the judiciary block us as we try to deal with a home rule government."
One of the decisions, which Mr. Onorato has vowed to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was handed down by Commonwealth Court on Monday regarding assessed property values. That ruling allows homeowners to appeal their property assessments if the current market value of their home is lower than the assessed value.
The case was brought by a Wilkinsburg couple who bought their home, assessed at $66,900 in 2002, for $31,500 in 2004. In 2006 they appealed the assessed value and were denied by the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review on the grounds that the assessment had been correct in 2002, the base year for assessments.
The couple, James and Jennifer Daugherty, sued and won before Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., who ruled that taxpayers have the right to argue for a property's current market value. Commonwealth Court affirmed that ruling.
Mr. Onorato said the decision sets Allegheny County apart from every other county that is using a base year for its assessment system. He said every county that abuts Allegheny uses a base year for its assessments and few legal problems have arisen.
But in Allegheny County, school districts and municipalities regularly challenge assessments they consider too low. In neighboring counties, fewer than 1 percent of assessment appeals are filed by school districts, while school districts in Allegheny County file 21 percent of the appeals.
After it established the base year system in 2006, the county filed appeals on behalf of 11,293 homeowners who had seen their 2002 assessments increase because of appeals by school districts and municipalities.
A court decision is pending on another suit filed by the Upper St. Clair School District and others who claim the base year system is unconstitutional because it keeps values artificially low in growing communities and higher than they should be in declining communities.
In the other case, the administration has not decided whether to appeal Wednesday's ruling by Common Pleas Judge Eugene B. Strassburger, who shot down the proposed referendum on making the sheriff an appointed rather than an elected position.
"I'm extremely disappointed in the decision," he said. "Home rule, I thought, gave voters the ability to control their own destiny."
Judge Strassburger said the rule requiring a five-year waiting period between changes to the home rule charter applies to the entire charter. Since the charter was changed in 2005 to eliminate several other row offices and replace them with appointed officials, the next change can't take place until 2010, he said.
Mr. Onorato disputed the judge's interpretation, saying that the form of government regarding the sheriff's office did not change.
County Councilman Dave Fawcett, R-Oakmont, said the decision should be appealed. The office, he said, "was created during the time of Thomas Jefferson when they felt that every office in the land should be elected to avoid tyranny."
Mr. Fawcett said the case should go to Commonwealth Court so the court can revisit the issue, which it has not reviewed in 15 years.
The decision on whether to appeal will be made in the next few days, but Mr. Onorato conceded "our chances on appeal don't look that good."
First Published March 30, 2007 12:00 am