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County Plan to Tax Billboards Put Off Until January
By Edward Lewis, Citizens' Voice Staff Writer

(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice, September 4, 2004

A proposed plan by Luzerne County officials to tax billboards was put on hold until January 2005 while the legality of the tariff is argued in court.

David Schwager, solicitor for the Board of Assessment of Appeals, said a compromise was reached late Thursday with Lamar Advantage Co., Scranton, to delay the tax while three issues remain open for debate. Those issues involve the constitutionality of the tax, whether billboards are real estate or personal property and if county officials had the statutory authority to impose such a tax.

Judge Mark Ciavarella set a trial date for Feb. 28 to hear testimony on the three issues. Lamar had filed an equity action and a lawsuit in court last month seeking a ruling to deem the tax void. The lawsuit also involves 25 property owners that have Lamar billboards on their land.

According to the lawsuit, Lamar claimed the county's decision to start taxing billboards unfairly singled out property owners and that county officials had no authority to impose such a tax. Schwager filed a motion against Lamar's equity action, claiming Lamar failed to follow Third Class County Assessment Law by not filing an appeal with the assessment board.

Schwager and Lamar's attorneys, Raymond P. Pepe and Jacqueline Jackson-DeGarcia, were before Judge Ciavarella Friday on Schwager's motion objecting to the equity action when the compromise was announced. However, a hearing is still scheduled for Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. before Judge Ciavarella regarding Schwager's petition objecting to Lamar's lawsuit.

As part of the countywide reassessment, 21st Century Appraisals identified 291 sites with 533 billboards that have an assessed property value of $1,238,551. Each billboard that was identified has at least 100 square feet of display space. In July, commissioners Greg Skrepenak, Todd Vonderheid and Stephen Urban adopted the billboard tax retroactive to Jan. 1, 2004.

However, the compromise postponed the implementation of the tax until Jan. 1, 2005, Schwager said. The county is expected to receive approximately $122,493, while school districts that impose higher property taxes are expected to receive twice as much in new tax revenue. Three Luzerne County school districts - Crestwood, Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre areas - have intervened in the lawsuit to protect their interest.

While Lamar did not object to the three school districts interceding in the dispute, Jackson-DeGarcia objected to 21st Century Appraisals attempt to intervene. Attorney Arthur Piccone, representing 21st Century Appraisals, said his client is a party to the dispute because they were solely involved in assessing the billboards.

Jackson-DeGarcia said Lamar is not disputing the assessment of the billboards but only the constitutionality of the tax and if county officials had the authority to impose the tax. "This matter is not about assessment of each billboard but about the county's authority levying a tax on billboards," Jackson-DeGarcia said.

"It's statutory invalid. We're challenging the activities of the county." Judge Ciavarella permitted 21st Century to intervene in the dispute.

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