The Diocese of Allentown wants to have the assessment values of 20 properties formerly used as churches, rectories, convents, and schools in Carbon County lowered.

During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, when asked about a pretrial that took place earlier this week in Carbon County's Court of Common Pleas, Commissioner William O'Gurek, chairman, said that the reason for the pretrial was to let the attorneys cite their positions on how they interpret the law.

He added that the county's position has always been "that in terms of assessment, when a church is no longer utilized as a place of worship, it becomes taxable property."

O'Gurek said that there are two points the diocese is contesting: when the church structures should be placed on the tax rolls and also the values of the properties.

Carbon County officials took action to get the structures back on the tax rolls in February 2009, when the board of commissioners announced that the assessment office had sent notifications to the diocese, stating that all structures that were vacant as a result of the church closures would be placed on the county tax rolls. The taxable value of the properties at that time came to $1,448,145.

The diocese appealed the county's assessments to the county assessment appeals board, stating that it felt the appraisals were too high and provided its own appraisal amounts of all properties. The diocese's total taxable value of all properties came to $810,000.

In September, the assessment appeals board rejected the diocese's request for a reduction in taxable value on the properties because it felt that "the values the diocese presented were inappropriate."

The diocese then appealed this ruling in Court of Common Pleas in October.

O'Gurek said it is possible, since in most cases that go to the Court of Common Pleas, that the appeal will end up being a stipulation of settlement between the two entities.

No further information on the upcoming appeals hearing between the county and diocese is available at this time.

The county has also announced that it has instructed its assessment office to look at every vacant church and school, no matter what denomination, in the hopes of getting more structures back on the county tax rolls.

The diocese closed nine churches throughout the county on July 15, 2008 because of an anticipated shortage of priests. They were among 47 of 151 churches closed by the diocese.

In other matters, the board again announced that the decision to sell Weatherwood, the Carbon County Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, was one that they wish they did not have to make; but a growing financial deficit has caused the county to take action to sell the facility.

During the meeting, Douglas King, a resident of Palmerton, asked the commissioners why they made the decision.

O'Gurek said that an analysis of the facility showed that the county was losing between $2.5 and $3 million annually; which equates to a loss of $8,200 a day.

This loss is a result of lower reimbursement rates that the county receives for resident care from Medicare and other medical suppliers.

King asked why the county can't turn a profit.

Commissioners Charles Getz and Wayne Nothstein echoed O'Gurek's thoughts, adding that there are a number of factors that are contributing to the loss, including more personal care homes being built in the area; lower reimbursement rates on the county level; people staying in their own homes longer; and fewer people utilizing the county-owned nursing home.

Nothstein added that some counties in the state that have chosen to sell their county-owned nursing homes, say that it was the best thing they have done.

He noted that Carbon County is not alone in this matter.

Thousands of counties across the state and country facing lower reimbursement rates and dwindling resident numbers, are forcing officials to sell financially unstable nursing homes to private entities.

The county received the first round of bids for Weatherwood on Feb. 26 and has been working with Marcus & Millichap of Philadelphia, the company hired by the county to handle the sale, to determine suitable buyers.

A second round of bidding will be accepted on March 12.

"We're doing everything in our power to try and weed out those companies with poor reputations," Nothstein said.