Montgomery County Council v. Supervisor of Assessments of Montgomery County

Decision Date26 June 1975
Docket NumberNo. 210,210
Citation340 A.2d 302,275 Md. 339
PartiesMONTGOMERY COUNTY COUNCIL et al. v. SUPERVISOR OF ASSESSMENTS OF MONTGOMERY COUNTY et al.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

H. Christopher Malone, Asst. County Atty. (Richard S. Mc.kernon, County Atty., and Robert G. Tobin, Jr., Deputy County Atty., Rockville, on the brief), for appellants.

Ward B. Coe, III, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Francis B. Burch, Atty. Gen., Baltimore, on the brief), for Supervisor of Assessments of Montgomery County, appellee.

Ralph R. Roach, Silver Spring, for D. B. Rein and others, appellees.

Argued before MURPHY, C. J., and SINGLEY, SMITH, DIGGES, ELDRIDGE and O'DONNELL, JJ.

ELDRIDGE, Judge.

We are presented with the question of the Maryland Tax Court's jurisdiction over appeals by a county from decisions to decrease assessments after the date of finality under Maryland Code (1957, 1975 Repl.Vol.), Art. 81, § 67.

The owners of the nineteen separate parcels of land in Montgomery County which are involved in this case had their land reassessed in 1971 for the 1972 tax year. After the time to protest the assessments had expired, and the assessments had become final under Code (1957, 1975 Repl.Vol.), Art. 81, § 255, a moratorium was imposed in parts of Montgomery County prohibiting further sewer connections.

Alleging that the sewer moratorium decreased the value of their land, the nineteen property owners sought relief under § 67 of Art. 81, which provides in relevant part:

'. . . The final assessing authority, the supervisor of assessments and the county treasurer (in Montgomery County the director of finance) of each county and in Baltimore City, the city solicitor, and the director of the department of assessments, . . . may by an order, decrease or abate an assessment after the date of finality for any year, whether a protest against said assessment was filed before the date of finality or not, in order to correct erroneous and improper assessments and to prevent injustice provided, that the reasons for such decrease or abatement shall be clearly set forth in such order.'

In all nineteen cases, the Appeal Tax Court, the Supervisor of Assessments of Montgomery County and the Director of Finance of Montgomery County, signed orders pursuant to § 67, reducing each of the assessments by 25% because of the sewer moratorium.

In twelve of the nineteen cases, 'James P. Gleason, County Executive and Montgomery County Council' filed Petitions of Appeal to the Maryland Tax Court. In seven of the nineteen cases, 'Montgomery County Council' alone filed Petitions of Appeal to the Tax Court. In none of the cases were either the County Executive or the County Council parties to the § 67 proceedings before the Appeal Tax Court, the Supervisor of Assessments and the Director of Finance.

Thereafter, the Supervisor of Assessments filed in the Tax Court motions to dismiss and motions to consolidate the cases for purpose of hearing the motions to dismiss. The Supervisor argued that the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction to hear an appeal from an assessment entered in accordance with Art. 81, § 67. Several of the taxpayers also filed motions to dismiss on the ground that neither the County Executive nor the County Council had standing to prosecute the appeals.

The Tax Court, after consolidating the cases and after a hearing, granted the motions to dismiss on the ground that it had no jurisdiction to entertain appeals from actions taken pursuant to Art. 81, § 67. The County Executive and the County Council thereupon took appeals to this Court.

In addition to their argument that the Tax Court correctly held that it had no jurisdiction to review Art. 81, § 67 determinations, the appellees also reiterate the contention made below that the appellants had no standing to appeal to the Tax Court. Two grounds for the asserted lack of standing are put forth:

First, appellees point to our recent decision in County Council for Montgomery County v. Supervisor of Assessments 274 Md. 116, 123, 332 A.2d 897, 901 (1975), holding that 'it is the corporate entity of Montgomery County, Maryland, so known in its charter, which is vested with the right of appeal under Art. 81, § 256(a) in lieu of the prior corporate entity, the County Commissioners of Montgomery County,' and that '(s)ince the County Council is not the corporate entity, an appeal may not be maintained in its name.' They argue that, just as the County Council alone is not the corporate entity, the combination of the County Executive and the County Council do not constitute 'Montgomery County, Maryland.' The appellants, while conceding the absence of a proper party in the seven cases where the County Council alone took appeals, argue that the 'County Executive constitutes the corporate entity of Montgomery County, and that is sufficient to maintain an appeal.'

Second, several of the appellees argue that the appellants lacked standing to appeal to the Tax Court because neither the County Executive nor the County Council were parties to the Art. 81, § 67, administrative proceedings. Reliance is placed upon this Court's decisions in Bryniarski v. Montgomery County, 247 Md. 137, 230 A.2d 289 (1967) and DuBay v. Crane, 240 Md. 180, 213 A.2d 487 (1965). See also our recent decision in Montgomery County, Maryland v. One North Park Associates, Md., 338 A.2d 892 (1972).

We believe that the Tax Court was correct in holding that it had no jurisdiction to hear appeals from the determinations pursuant to Art. 81, § 67. Consequently, we need not, and do not, decide either of the two standing questions raised by the appellees.

The Tax Court considered this Court's decision in LaBelle v. State Tax Comm., 217 Md. 443, 142 A.2d 560, cert. denied, 358 U.S. 889, 79 S.Ct. 135, 3 L.E.2d 117 (1958), to be dispositive of the jurisdictional issue, and we agree. In LaBelle, a Montgomery County property owner did not protest the assessment on her dwelling before the date of finality. About seven months later, she protested the assessment, and the Appeal Tax Court for Montgomery County heard her protest under the provisions of Art. 81, § 67. 1 After the hearing, the Appeal Tax Court proposed a reduction in Mrs. LaBelle's assessment, but the Director of Finance of Montgomery County and the Supervisor of Assessments refused to agree. Consequently, the assessment entered as of the date of finality remained. Mrs. LaBelle took an appeal to the State Tax Commission, the predecessor of the Maryland Tax Court, and the Commission held that it had no jurisdiction. The Circuit Court for Montgomery County affirmed, and the affirmance was upheld by this Court.

In holding that 'the State Tax Commission rightly determined that it had no jurisdiction to entertain the appeal and decide the merits' (217 Md. at 453, 142 A.2d at 565), this Court in LaBelle, in an opinion by Judge Hammond, explained both the nature of § 67 proceedings, as well as the State Tax Commission's jurisdiction, as follows (id. at 451-452, 142 A.2d at 564):

'The potential relief held out by § 66 to a taxpayer whose assessment has become final is a matter of grace and not a matter of right. . . . If the taxpayer has in due time taken the steps prescribed by the statutes to call upon the local assessing authorities to hear and consider his case, and then duly appealed to the State Tax Commission, or has appealed in time directly to the State Tax Commission from the assessment, he is entitled to have the body called upon act on his case as a matter of right. If, however, he permits an assessment to become final, he can only hope that the three taxing and fiscal authorities who are named in Sec. 66 (67) of Art. 81 will agree that his cause is just and demands relief. If they do not, the statute gives him no further remedy and the assessment that has been allowed to become final remains on the books for the year in question. The powers of the State Tax Commission are entirely statutory and the statutes confer jurisdiction on it only if an assessment is protested before it has become final.' (Emphasis supplied.)

The appellants argue that LaBelle is inapplicable to the subject case because LaBelle involved an attempted appeal by a property owner who had no 'right' to § 67 relief but was only entitled to relief as a matter of 'grace' if the three fiscal authorities agreed that her cause was just. Appellants contend that they are in an entirely different position, for they are not seeking relief as a matter of grace but, 'as elected representatives of the people,' are attempting to prevent an 'unwarranted reduction of assessments.' However, this Court's decision in LaBelle was based upon the 'jurisdiction' of the State Tax Commission (now the Maryland Tax Court) over § 67 proceedings and not upon the standing of particular parties depending upon the nature of their interest in the § 67 proceeding. While the Court explained that the purpose of a § 67 proceeding was to grant or deny relief to the taxpayer as a matter of 'grace' instead of as a matter of right, nothing in the Court's opinion indicated that the State Tax Commission's power to review § 67 determinations depended upon whether the taxpayer had won or lost in the § 67 proceedings. Instead, the Court held that the statutes confer 'jurisdiction on it (the State Tax Commission) only if an assessment is protested before it has become final.'

The Court's opinion in LaBelle referred to Art. 81, § 256, as authorizing appeals to the State Tax Commission when the taxpayer had taken some action before the date of finality (id. at 451, 142 A.2d at 560). Neither § 67 nor § 256 have been significantly amended since the LaBelle case. Sec. 256(a) provides (emphasis supplied) 'Any taxpayer, any city, or the Attorney General or Department on behalf of the State, or a supervisor of assessments as provided in § 234 of this article, or the county commissioners of any county where an appeal tax court has been duly created claiming to...

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