Judge puts reassessment injunction request on hold

Doyle says decision must come soon because of upcoming property tax bills

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The injunction request to keep Blair County from using newly-certified property values will remain on hold for more than a week.

Judge Elizabeth Doyle on Tuesday told representatives for the county and the citizens group seeking the injunction that each could supplement their courtroom hearing presentations with written documents filed by Jan. 18.

While the judge offered no specific date as to when she’ll rule on the injunction request, arguments offered Tuesday indicate that a ruling needs to be made soon because of next month’s distribution of county and municipal property tax bills.

Allowing property tax bills to be distributed based on inaccurate assessments will harm the property owners represented by Blair County Citizens for an Accurate Reassessment, the group’s representatives told Doyle on Tuesday.

But an injunction keeping the county and municipalities from using the new values will cause harm, too, attorney Joan Righter Price said on behalf of the county and Evaluator Services & Technology, the Greensburg-based company hired to manage the county’s reassessment project.

If it’s granted, Price said the local governments will have to recalculate their 2017 millage rates and return to using the 1958 assessments deemed to have “a complete lack of uniformity.” Her description came from a study of the 1958 assessment, which identified a wide range of property taxes being paid by the owners of similar-valued properties.

Because of reassessment, there were property owners who had their values and property taxes reduced, Price advised Doyle, so what happens to them if the injunction is issued, she asked.

“The harm will be much worse if you wait to correct the problems down the road than to cope with the problems now,” citizens group Secretary Richard Latker told Doyle.

Latker and citizens group President Aaron Ritchey, in documents and in court, have criticized the county’s reassessment project for yielding assessments that exceed fair market value and an appeals process that was difficult for the elderly, the handicapped and those with limited computer skills.

“We’re not demanding that every assessment be perfect,” Latker said.

But the group is asking, he said,  for a process that is fair, lawful, transparent and reasonable for the taxpayers.

Price told Doyle that the county “bent over backwards” for property owners by holding educational meetings and helping with appeals. Her comment prompted some soft grumbling and head shaking among the estimated 40 people who attended Tuesday’s hearing.

“There’s a whole room full of people ready to testify about their lack of due process,” Ritchey said.

No matter how Doyle rules on the injunction, the lawsuit filed by the citizens group will remain intact with a written response from the county due in late January.

Neither the county nor the citizens group objected Tuesday to having Doyle consider the injunction request or the lawsuit. Doyle acknowledged that she, as well as the county’s other judges, have a potential conflict of interest based on their property ownership, people they know and/or additional roles they are playing or have played in the reassessment process.

Doyle said she was involved in the appointment of mediators handling court appeals. And, Doyle acknowledged having played volleyball at Ritchey’s house.

Price said that disclosure wasn’t enough to make her ask the judge to recuse herself.

“I trust her judgment,” Price said. “I think it was admirable that she brought it up.”

Latker and Ritchey, who came to court without an attorney, also declined to ask for a recusal.

Afterward, Latker said he was pleased with how the hearing transpired.

“I had no sense that we were disadvantaged because we were pro se,” Latker said, using the legal term for lack of an attorney. “That often is an issue for pro se litigants, but Judge Doyle, she refrained from any hint of prejudice.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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