January 16 – The question in the headline is not rhetorical. Believe it or not, it has happened.
The Cumberland Valley School District in Carlisle got tired of waiting for the county to perform a reassessment, so they went into court to sue property owners on the grounds that their properties are assessed too low.
This is one of the fastest growing areas in Pennsylvania.
Attorney Clint Barkdoll said, “They started to get commercial sales data and what they started to discover was that some of these shopping malls or big apartment complexes were being sold at prices that were more than double their tax assessment.”
After this study, the district found almost 40 properties that fell into this category.
Barkdoll said, “The district estimates they’re losing over $3 million a year, just on those few dozen properties because the county has not reassessed. So the school district is going to court.”
The kicker is the reporting showed the district is actually winning these cases.
Barkdoll said, “They’re now trying to create pressure on the Cumberland County Commissioners to step in and do a more robust reassessment, not wait years and years for this stuff to happen. So just some instructive guidance, I think for some of the discussion we’re having here locally.”
Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM wondered, “They’re not suing individual people though, are they?”
Barkdoll confirmed, “They are. They’re suing individual property owners and there’s some questions about this because the Constitution prohibits what’s called spot reassessment. So far, though, the district is prevailing because they’re claiming that assessed value of the property is so woefully inadequate based on sales data that they’re carrying the burden, they’re winning the case, but you can imagine the anger if you’re a property owner, and you’re getting a notice in the mail, you’re being sued by your school district to increase taxes just for your property. It’s really controversial.”
Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM insisted, “Because that’s not their fault. They can’t control whether it’s assessed or not. I know Westmoreland County was another one. It took lawsuits to finally get these assessments to be done. So, wake up and listen. We don’t want to waste money on lawsuits that we should be spending on a reassessment.”
Ryan added, “(Chambersburg) Borough Manager Jeffrey Stonehill sent an email to the radio station with some assessment information, which I found very valuable, and we have an invitation to the borough manager. I think that would be a valuable conversation. The invitations out there, we’ll see if he bites on it.”
“I would love to talk to him,” Barkdoll said. “By the way, if you’re a local public official, and you’re reading this story about our neighbors in Cumberland County, you can envision the discussions. If the county doesn’t do reassessment might your local school district or borough start bringing selective lawsuits against selective properties? It would be a huge controversy. I’m certainly not recommending it, but the fact that it’s happening next door we need to keep an eye on it.”
Ryan said, “You think about all those houses that surround Wilson College, I think you’d certainly want to start out in the suburbs, right?”
Barkdoll said, “Well if they would do it, yeah, that’s probably where they would do it. Now the big ticket cases like in Cumberland Valley School District would be commercial properties. That’s where the big tax money would be. This article profiles, for example, a local shopping mall that sold for say $40 million a few months ago, and it’s assessed that maybe $12 million. Think of all the tax money that the school district and the township are losing by that assessment. So that’s just one example.”
Ryan added, “The other layer is could the school district sue the borough that owns Southgate?”
“Probably so,” Barkdoll confirmed. “Some of the property owners are really pushing back on this, saying we think it’s illegal. This is spot reassessment. It’s unconstitutional. Yet, it appears thus far the school district is winning these cases. So yeah, I would imagine in theory, the school district could sue anybody.”
Jansen predicted, “The pressure will go to the commissioners then to do a reassessment.”
Ryan continued, “You guys (Chambersburg Borough Council) get into the real estate business (with the Southgate Shopping Center) because you couldn’t hold the guy accountable by drawing the line in the sand and you wouldn’t do anything at Borough Council and then you’d get sued by the school district because you bought the property? This is just too rich.”
Barkdoll said, “One other point on that, if you’re thinking about these crazy legal fees, the arrangement in Cumberland Valley is the attorney for the school district that’s pursuing this, he’s doing it on a contingency basis. So the district’s not paying a dime in legal fees if they lose. If they win, this attorney gets 25% of the additional taxes for a period of three years. That’s the arrangement.”