When Municipalities Overreach

Municipal bodies occasionally try extreme measures.  The city of Hazelton recently adopted a severe immigration policy that brought it instant notoriety nationally in that it was more restrictive than anything in the country.  (The law has been stricken by the courts, though the issue is destined to be with us for some time.)

The city of Jeannette in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania tried something fairly extreme out of frustration in 2005, in an effort to collect from the owners of real estate who were deadbeats in that they either owed taxes or other municipal service fees.  The measure in this case was an ordinance which provided that no person who owes money to the City for any reason would be entitled to be issued any permit to do anything until the delinquencies were cured fully.

That included anyone seeking among others a building permit, subdivision approval, zoning change, occupancy permit, or “any other license or permit associated with construction, demolition, use and/or occupancy of any property in the City…”.  Would it surprise you to know that this caught the attention of the deadbeats?  Several projects were stopped cold.

And the Ordinance did not just apply to the corporations, partnerships, or other entities which owned real estate; it applied to every “partner, shareholder, officer or director of any corporation or other business entity” who owed taxes or fees to the City.   A person could own as little as 1% of the stock of a corporation; and if the corporation had any delinquency on the books of the City, the shareholder was effectively shut out from obtaining permits relating to any parcel of real estate he or she owned anywhere in the City.

The Commonwealth Court spent little time deciding the Ordinance is invalid (Trigona  v. City of Jeannette).  All municipalities in Pennsylvania are created by statutes enacted by the Pennsylvania legislature.  It has long been decided that a municipality, as a creature of legislation, is strictly limited to those powers specifically enumerated in the legislation which creates it.

In the case of a third-class city which Jeannette is, the City is given two methods of collecting its real estate taxes: either place a municipal lien against the delinquent property or sue the owner (as a contractual obligation) in the county court. The Ordinance in question made no effort to mask its purpose; in its preamble it explains that it is created to enforce delinquents to pay.

Though a citizen of Jeanette who pays his or her taxes in a timely manner might applaud the concept because deadbeats increase the burden of the rest, the Court struck the Ordinance because it was beyond the designated powers of the City to adopt such a sweeping measure.

– Ken Butera

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