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Carbon appealing court ruling that cost county thousands

Published January 18. 2013 05:02PM

Carbon County is appealing a Commonwealth Court ruling that will cost the county thousands of dollars.

During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard made a motion to authorize the submission of petition of allowance to appeal the Commonwealth Court decision, Panther Valley vs. Carbon County, to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The motion passed unanimously.

The reason for the appeal is last Thursday, Commonwealth Court Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt overturned a portion of a 2011 Carbon County Court ruling between the county and Panther Valley School District and Portnoff Law Associates over delinquent tax collections from 2000 to 2011.

In her ruling, Leavitt said the court "reversed the trial court's directive that delinquent tax payments must be made directly to the tax claim bureau and its determination that retroactive commissions are due and owning."

This refers to the portion of the ruling by Monroe County Judge Jerome P. Cheslock, who oversaw the case in Carbon County, that states Panther Valley School District must pay Carbon County $223,000 in retroactive commission for delinquent tax collections from 2000 through 2011.

The new ruling states that Panther Valley, which employed Portnoff as the delinquent tax collector during that time period, will not have to pay the county from tax years 2000 through 2006.

However, Leavitt continues that the Commonwealth Court "affirms the trial court's order regarding the disclosure of records and the payment of commissions for tax year 2007 and forward."

Commissioner William O'Gurek said that the board decided to appeal because "our lawyers believe the proper thing to do is appeal it."

Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, chairman, added that the Commonwealth Court decision affects every county with future tax collections.

He also voiced concerns over thousands that the county was forced to spend in hiring auditors to complete audits of its tax records as a result of Panther Valley using Portnoff to collect delinquent taxes.

Carbon County has been seeking restitution and tax files from 2000 since Nov. 13, 2009, when the commissioners filed a complaint and notice of mandamus against Panther Valley School District, in the hopes of revising the way the school district was collecting delinquent real estate taxes.

The suit was based on an earlier ruling in a Monroe County lawsuit filed against the East Stroudsburg School District in 2006. In that case the court ruled that tax records and returns are to be filed with the county tax claim bureau.

The complaint, which named Panther Valley School District; Porembo, and school board members Ronald Slivka, Anthony Pondish, Anthony DeMarco, David Hiles, Thomas Shober, William Hunsicker, Jeff Markovich, Donna Trimmel and R. Mickey Angst, sought to have delinquent tax records that were collected by Portnoff, who was hired by the school district, returned to the county so that the county could have complete records of all property liens and delinquencies.

The county also sought to receive 5 percent commission, or nearly $300,000 from the school district, which, according to the suit, the tax claim bureau was entitled to under the Pennsylvania Real Estate Tax Sale Law.

In October 2011, Judge Cheslock ruled in favor of Carbon County, stating that the district must turn over all tax records from 2000 through 2011; and pay the 5 percent commission and other fees, including costs incurred in the suit, and legal fees.

Shortly after, Panther Valley and Portnoff filed the appeal to Commonwealth Court, stating that county court "erred in ordering retroactive commissions for tax years 2000 through 2006 because that order violates the statute of limitations and doctrine of laches ... erred in ordering that all delinquent tax payments collected by the school district must be paid to the tax claim bureau for distribution to the school district."

The appeal also stated that the county "did not have a right to peremptory judgment under the time-honored principles relating thereto" and the "trial court erred in awarding costs and attorney fees to the county."

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