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Panther Valley board hires firm to fight tax case against county

Published December 05. 2009 09:00AM

Panther Valley School Board officials have announced the district's representation in a lawsuit that was filed against them in November.

During a recent school board meeting, the board voted to hire Sweet, Stevens, Katz, and Williams LLP of Pittston, at a rate of $175 an hour, to represent the school district in the mandamus case filed against them by Carbon County. School board director R. Mickey Angst, who was one of three school board members removed from the list of named defendents, cast the sole "no" vote.

Kenneth Marx, Panther Valley School District business manager, said during a phone interview Friday that the school district has been advised by legal counsel to not formally comment on the matter at this time.

The court action seeks to have delinquent tax records that were collected by Portnoff Law Associates, Ltd. of Norristown, the firm hired by the school district to pursue the collection of delinquent real estate taxes from 2000 to the present, returned to the county, so that the Carbon County Tax Claim Bureau can have complete records of all property liens and delinquencies. It also seeks to obtain the 5 percent commission for each delinquent tax collection that the tax claim bureau is entitled to under the Pennsylvania Real Estate Tax Sale Law. According to the suit, that commission owed is at least $323,000 or more.

Panther Valley used Portnoff because the company promised to get the delinquent tax money faster than the county, and its services would be of no charge to the district. The added expense for their services would instead be added to the delinquent taxpayer's bill.

In response to Panther Valley's recent action, Carbon County Commissioner William O'Gurek, chairman, said the county will now await legal proceedings to begin between the two entities.

"We will not litigate a lawsuit in the news media, and so we are looking forward to the legal process proceeding since Panther Valley has chosen not to cooperate with the county regarding its violating the Real Estate Tax Law," O'Gurek said. "It is interesting to point out, however, that all of the taxing bodies that utilized Portnoff Law Offices have stopped that practice, except Panther Valley. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes."

Also during the school board meeting, school board director David Hiles suggested that the board file a countersuit against the county related to property assessments that have been done by the county that have resulted in the district having to return hundreds of thousands of tax monies to individuals.

"I think we need to get our money back now," Hiles said. "It's up to them (the county) to run their assessment process better."

O'Gurek responded to Hiles' recent comments, saying that the county's assessment process has not changed.

"The county assesses properties in the same manner it has for years and years," he said. "What complicates things is that because sales data often differs from assessments, which is something neither the county nor any other taxing body has control of because buyers and sellers negotiate sales prices between themselves the State Tax Equalization Board provides a common level ratio that is utilized in assessment appeals.

"Every property owner has the legal right to appeal their assessment on an annual basis. When that happens, the taxpayer is entitled to due process of an assessment appeal, and, if not satisfied, can also appeal to the court of common pleas. While it is complicated, this process very frequently results in changes of assessment because a property owner is entitled to his or her due process."

O'Gurek noted that through the years, the Panther Valley School District has appealed numerous assessment appeals where the sale price of a property is higher than the assessed value. If the school district wins the appeal, the property assessment is raised and the homebuyer sees an increase in taxes.

"It is safe and conservative to say that the district has generated tens of thousands of dollars in added tax revenues because Panther Valley chooses to appeal assessments. Having said that, I hardly think Mr. Hiles would want to continue the discussion he raises about assessments, unless, of course, Panther Valley wants to return to the taxpayers the revenue it generated by appealing hundreds of assessments that were increased because of the district's actions."

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