City of Harrisburg v. Dauphin County Bd. of Assessment Appeals

Decision Date03 July 1996
Citation677 A.2d 350
PartiesCITY OF HARRISBURG; Joan E. Croasdale et al., v. DAUPHIN COUNTY BOARD OF ASSESSMENT APPEALS et al., Appellants. CITY OF HARRISBURG; Joan E. Croasdale et al., v. DAUPHIN COUNTY BOARD OF ASSESSMENT APPEALS et al., Joan E. Croasdale, Kristen G. Acri et al., Appellants.
CourtPennsylvania Commonwealth Court

Carl G. Wass, for appellants Dauphin County Bd. of Assessment Appeals, et al.

Donna S. Weldon, for appellees Joan E. Croasdale, et al.


SMITH, Judge.

The Dauphin County Board of Assessment Appeals, its members individually, Dauphin County and the City of Harrisburg School District (collectively, County) appeal from a final decree in equity of the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County. The court ordered, inter alia, a reassessment of all property in Dauphin County, ordered the County to roll back the 1987-1988 assessments of the individually named property owners (Taxpayers) to the valuations prior to those revisions; enjoined the County from continuing its program of reassessments based upon rehabilitation in the City of Harrisburg until further order; and denied the Taxpayers' request for attorney's fees. Taxpayers cross-appealed from the trial court's order seeking tax refunds, attorney's fees and court costs.

The issues presented by the County are (1) whether the defense of laches requires the dismissal of Taxpayers' complaint, where virtually all political subdivisions within Dauphin County have levied and collected four or five years' worth of real estate taxes under the challenged assessments; (2) whether Taxpayers' equity action may be maintained where they have failed to exhaust a statutory remedy of appeal to the Dauphin County Board of Assessment Appeals and thereafter to the common pleas court; (3) whether equity has jurisdiction in a case where Taxpayers have not presented a substantial constitutional question; (4) whether the trial court erred in ordering a reassessment of all property in Dauphin County, where the only inequalities and inequities found to exist were located exclusively in the City of Harrisburg; and (5) whether the trial court erred in enjoining the County from continuing to engage in its program of interim revised assessments based on rehabilitation in the City of Harrisburg.

The issues presented by Taxpayers on cross-appeal are whether the trial court abused its discretion in failing to permit a refund of taxes and related interest in contravention of explicit statutory directives on spot assessments and whether the trial court violated other statutory provisions by failing to award Taxpayers' litigation costs and attorney's fees.


The last county-wide reassessment in Dauphin County occurred in 1973. Ten years later, in 1983, the County, after determining that 90 percent of the properties were under assessed but that another county-wide reassessment was not economically feasible, attempted substantial revisions of assessments in the City of Harrisburg using a ratio reassessment program. In 1984, pursuant to the ratio program, every property in the Shipoke area of Harrisburg was reassessed. Several other areas of the city were also subsequently reassessed using the ratio program. The Shipoke area, however, was the only area where the revised assessments were implemented.

Joan E. Croasdale, an owner of property in the Shipoke area, also a party to the present action, filed an equity action seeking to enjoin collection of the increased 1984 tax. The common pleas court rejected Croasdale's challenge and upheld the County's new assessment. This Court in Croasdale v. Dauphin County Board of Assessment Appeals, 89 Pa.Cmwlth. 409, 492 A.2d 793 (1985) (Croasdale I ), determined that the 1984 ratio reassessment program constituted a de facto county-wide reassessment and reversed the common pleas court, holding that the new levy against the Shipoke properties violated Section 402(a) of The General County Assessment Law, 1 which forbids any levies on county-wide reassessments until they are 100 percent complete. As a result of a lack of resources the 1984 ratio reassessment program was never implemented county-wide.

In 1985 the County implemented a county-wide reassessment after determining that the current assessment system had become increasingly unequal. In fact, the County's 1984 common level ratio was 15.1 percent, only half of the County's predetermined ratio of 30 percent, indicating that assessment values were only half of market values. 2 Because Dauphin County became certified as a Third Class County in 1981, it was able to utilize a predetermined ratio of 100 percent pursuant to Section 7(c) of what is commonly referred to as the Third Class County Assessment Law. 3 As a result, in 1985 the County first adopted a 100 percent predetermined ratio for the 1973 market values, then doubled the 1973 market values in order to arrive at a January 1, 1986 market value.

In 1987-1988, the County focused on reassessing allegedly remodeled or rehabilitated property in the City of Harrisburg. The City of Harrisburg was the only municipality in Dauphin County where systematic reassessment activity, based on rehabilitation, was undertaken. The rehabilitated properties were assessed by first establishing the current market value in the year of the inspection (1987 or 1988), using a sales comparison approach. The current market value was then inserted into a formula to arrive at a current reassessment despite the fact that other properties, which had not been rehabilitated, were still assessed under a base year system utilizing 1973 market values.

In response Taxpayers, owners of properties reassessed under the 1987-1988 reassessment scheme, filed this present action on March 15, 1990 seeking equitable and declaratory relief based on the contention that the remodeling reassessments violated the uniformity of taxation requirement set forth in Article 8, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution: "All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws." Taxpayers also contend that both the 1985 reassessment and the 1987-1988 remodeling reassessment scheme violated the "equalization objective" contained in Section 7(d) of the Third Class County Assessment Law. 4 Taxpayers further contend that the County's implementation of the 1987-1988 reassessments in the City of Harrisburg violates Section 402(a) of The General County Assessment Law, which prohibits a county from levying any real estate taxes under a county-wide revised assessment of real property until it has been completed for the entire county.

A trial was conducted where both parties presented evidence. The County, however, failed to present a qualified expert who could offer an opinion as to the validity of Taxpayer's statistical and uniformity evidence. On February 23, 1994, the trial court entered a decree nisi, ordering, inter alia, a county-wide reassessment; the trial court, however, denied Taxpayers' request for refunds, attorney's fees and costs, and after disposing of post-trial motions, entered its decree nisi as a final decree. These appeals followed. 5


Before this Court the County first contends that Taxpayers' equity action should have been dismissed on the ground that it is barred by application of the doctrine of laches because four years and five months had elapsed between the mailing of notice of the 1985 reassessments and the filing of Taxpayers' complaint. The mere passage of time does not give rise to an automatic finding of laches. Lajevic v. Department of State, Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, 165 Pa.Cmwlth. 310, 645 A.2d 348 (1994). Laches bars relief when the complaining party is guilty of want of due diligence in failing to promptly institute an action to the prejudice of another. Sprague v. Casey, 520 Pa. 38, 550 A.2d 184 (1988). In order to prevail on an assertion of laches, the responding party must establish: (1) a delay arising from the petitioner's failure to exercise due diligence and (2) prejudice to the respondents resulting from the delay. Moreover, the question of laches is a factual one, and it is determined by examining the circumstances of each case. Id.

The circumstances in the present case do not support a conclusion that Taxpayers' action is barred by laches. Most importantly, because the relief granted by the trial court is prospective only and the County was not ordered to pay refunds, the school districts and local governments that relied on the 1985 reassessments will not be unduly prejudiced by the ordering of a county-wide reassessment. Further, the record indicates that the complaint was brought by real estate owners who promptly challenged the 1987-1988 interim revisions of assessments of their property based on alleged rehabilitation. Because the 1985 reassessment did contribute to a greater lack of uniformity, which was not immediately apparent to Taxpayers in that the County had represented to them that the 1985 reassessment would in fact lead to equalization, the trial court correctly found that Taxpayers acted with due diligence in challenging the 1985 reassessment as well as the 1987-1988 remodeling reassessments. Accordingly, Taxpayers' equity action is not barred by the defense of laches.

The County next contends that Taxpayers' complaint should have been dismissed by the trial court for the reason that Taxpayers failed to exhaust a mandatory and exclusive statutory remedy by not appealing their individual assessments to the Board and then to the common pleas court pursuant to Section 8(c) of the Third Class County Assessment Law, 72 P.S. § 5349(c). That section provides for an appeal to the board of assessment appeals by any...

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