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Lamar Files Civil Suit Against Luzerne County's Tax on Billboards
By James Conmy and Edward Lewis, Citizens' Voice Staff Writers
(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice, August 12, 2004
As promised, a Scranton advertising company filed a civil action lawsuit in Luzerne County Court against county officials plan to tax billboards.
Lamar Advantage Co., owner of approximately 200 commercial outdoor displays in the county, is claiming the tax on billboards will cost them approximately $300,000 annually.
The five-count suit filed Wednesday names the county, Commissioners Greg Skrepenak, Stephen Urban and Todd Vonderheid and the county's Board of Assessment Appeals as defendants.
Lamar leases space from landowners to install billboards. They have owned billboards in Luzerne County since September 1999. The land the billboards are on was taxed, but not the actual structures.
Prior to commissioners adopting the tax on billboards, the large commercial signs were considered private property, according to the lawsuit.
Luzerne County is expected to bring in approximately $153,000 in new revenue by taxing billboards and wireless communication facilities, such as cellular telephone towers. School districts and municipalities are expected to receive twice as much the county receives.
The county's reassessment contract, 21st Century Appraisals, previously identified 289 outdoor advertising signs in the county.
On Aug. 4, the Board of Assessment of Appeals issued tax assessment notices for an additional assessment for all large off-site commercial outdoor advertising signs to landowners.
"It is anticipated within 40 days of the issuance of tax assessment notices, tax collectors in Luzerne County and municipalities will issue tax bills to Lamar for payment," according to the lawsuit.
Lamar claimed Luzerne County officials lack the authority to impose and enforce the tax on large off-site commercial advertising signs.
David E. Schwager, solicitor for the Board of Assessment of Appeals, filed a motion against Lamar's lawsuit, claiming Lamar failed to follow third-class county code by first filing an appeal with the Board of Assessments Appeals.
Judge Thomas F. Burke Jr. scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, Aug. 31, to determine if Lamar's lawsuit should be dismissed.
On July 21, the commissioners unanimously authorized a motion to tax outdoor advertising structures and minerals for the year 2004 and forward.
Public Information Officer Kathy Bozinski said the commissioners stand behind that decision and the solicitor's office will defend that position in any legal action.
Commissioner Vonderheid said the motion is about tax fairness, not going against a particular company or industry.
"In Luzerne County government, we have a lot of respect for Lamar Advertising," Vonderheid said. "It is a terrific company based in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which employs local people, but we have a technical disagreement of the difference between real and personal property."
"Despite the filing today, we are going to continue to try to work with Lamar Advertising on a compromise to make sure that everyone owning real property is taxed fairly and appropriately," he said.
Representatives of Lamar Advertising did meet with county officials to discuss their concerns prior to the suit being filed.