Judge makes ruling in city suit

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A Huntingdon County judge has sided with the City of Altoona in a dispute that developed in 2013 when Blair County withheld delinquent tax revenue from the city, after paying for demolition of the former Russo building.

Judge George N. Zanic, who reviewed the lawsuit Altoona filed against the county, ordered the county to release all delinquent tax revenue it withheld from the city.

While the amount withheld was $95,444, county leaders said Tuesday that it’s much less now because approximately $70,000 was sent to the city after the county sold the cleared site in April for $96,000 to the Altoona Water Authority.

The amount the county now owes to the city, based on the judge’s order, would be between $25,000 and $26,000, Solicitor Nathan Karn said.

The county has 30 days from Aug. 19, the date of the judge’s order to appeal, but neither Karn nor commissioners were willing Tuesday to address an appeal.

Assistant City Solicitor Daniel Stants said he thought the judge’s ruling was “pretty clear.”

Zanic sided with the city and referred, in a one-page order, to a 1987 Commonwealth Court ruling in which Washington County was ordered to tear down a building on land purchased at a judicial tax sale.

In that case, Canonsburg sought the court’s intervention to have the building demolished, and the court issued an order, assigning demolition costs to the county, the borough and the school district.

Stants argued in legal documents that without the court’s intervention, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Tax Sale Law identifies the county as the responsible party for covering demolition costs involving a property in its possession for lack of tax payments.

Zanic agreed and stated in his order that Blair County “may only seek reimbursement for demolition costs through the rental or sale of the subject property.”

Karn, in legal arguments and on Tuesday, said the county remained in compliance with state law.

The county acquired the longtime deteriorating Russo building when the property went up for sale due to the lack of tax payments by its former owner, Napoli Recycling Corp.

City leaders said the county did that as a tactical move to avoid an obligation similar to the one incurred when the city ordered the county to demolish the deteriorating Eagles building and cover the cost. At that time, the Eagles building was already in the county’s repository of properties with unpaid taxes.

After buying the Russo building and declaring it a hazard, commissioners hired a demolition company to clear the site, then notified fellow taxing bodies of the plan to withhold delinquent tax revenue, some of which would later be reimbursed with sale revenue.

“It doesn’t matter what they did, when or how the building got torn down,” Stants said. “The only way the county can recover the demolition cost is through a sale.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.