Northampton County is hell bent on relocating and centralizing its human services department to a building under construction in Bethlehem Township. But to make this work, it had to unload the two buildings where human services workers are located. One of these places is the Bechtel Building, which was sold last Wednesday to prominent Bethlehem Attorney Justin McCarthy. But the other property, Easton's Wolf Building, is more problematic. Developer Mark Mulligan agreed to purchase the property in June for $1.925 million, but his agreement was contingent on a KOZ tax exemption that could be disapproved by the state. Mulligan told Council he'd probably still go ahead if the designation was disapproved, but reducing the assessment would sweeten the pot for Mulligan.
Never mind that the state could very well decide to grant the KOZ. Let's give this guy another tax break!
There's no need to sweeten his pot. Easton has fallen over itself to give Mulligan practically anything he wants. The Easton Silk Mill project, for example, has benefited from at least $7 million in RCAP grants, but the City is just giving it to this guy. That's a project that could easily be split up among three or four developers, but Mulligan is their fair-haired boy. He once sang opera, so he must have class.
Recently, a trendy "Cheeburger Cheeburger" opened up at one of Mulligan's properties. Easton waived all permit fees. Do you think they did that for Sharbel Koorie's "Daddy's Place," which opened up just a stone's throw away?
Some people get special treatment. Others get the bill.
Not content with all the money and projects they've showered on Mulligan, which includes regular payments from the Easton Redevelopment Authority as a project manager, Easton officials wanted the assessment reduced at the Wolf Building.
To be more specific, Easton Redevelopment Authority's Richard McAteer, wanted that assessment reduced. So he asked the County to start the ball rolling..
Here's the problem. If you know you could never get a nickel over $150,000 for your property, but the tax man says it's worth $300,000, you can always file an assessment appeal. But if you want it to take effect for the next tax calendar year, you must file by August 1. This way, the Assessment office has time to process and hold a hearing. This isn't some rule or guideline. It's an ordinance. It was adopted by Northampton County Council in 2010, pursuant to the state Tax Code. It's the law.
Northampton County, at the urging of Easton officials, appealed the $1.6 million assessment of the Wolf Building, which translates to a building worth $4,224,000. Obviously, it is overvalued. But instead of filing its appeal on or before August 1, it filed on November 19.
Under state law and a Northampton County Ordinance, the Revenue Appeals Board lacked the authority to reduce the assessment for calendar year 2014. But they did it anyway.
During the hearing, the County produced a 2012 appraisal that valued the property at $1.8 million (not the $760,000 incorrectly reported yesterday). A County appraiser decided to appraise the property herself, using both comparable sales and income. She valued the property at $2.55 million, far more than the the $1.925 million that Mulligan agreed to pay.
The Revenue Appeals Board decided to ignore the County's own appraiser and reduce the value of the property to $1.925 million, the amount that Mulligan agreed to pay. But there was a problem. Appeals Board members Bob Miklas and George Andralis voted to reduce the assessment, but Board members Marci Carter and Leonard Zavacky said No.
This dilemma was solved when Miklas announced that he had a proxy from the absent fifth board member. That absentee is none other than Richard McAteer, the Easton Redevelopment Authority official who improperly suggested that the assessment be reduced in the first place.
So the bluebloods took care of each other on Monday.
And we will make up the difference.
If the state grants a KOZ and exempts the property from all property taxes for ten years, this will mean that the Revenue Appeals Board broke the law for nothing.
According to one assessment official, there has never been an occasion before Monday in which a late appeal was entertained for the next calendar year. And she's never heard of a Board member voting by proxy.
The Board is clearly playing favorites, especially among certain Easton-connected property owners. I've been told for example that Gretchen Longenbach, an Easton official tied at the hip to McAteer, has had the assessments reduced on two of her Bethlehem-owned properties. I am not sure about that, but will be checking.
After playing favorites with Easton Savior Mark Mulligan, the Revenue Appeals Board screwed Abe Atiyeh. He had appealed the assessment on a school building that he actually owns, located on Northampton Street. He had an appraisal, but failed to submit it ten days before the hearing. He was shot down for failing to follow their rules. This was from the same Board that thought nothing of breaking both County and state law for the opera singer.
Abe's blood is not blue enough.
What's disturbing about this is the involvement of Richard McAteer, who was Shadow Mayor under Phil Mitman. After screwing that up, he's latched onto Executive Elect John Brown. It is McAteer who got Brown on the RenewLV Board and who introduced him to all the Lehigh Valley Partnership aristocrats. It is McAteer who thinks he can vote by proxy on a quasi judicial board, and who urged the County to violate the law. It is McAteer who jumped the gun on getting a lower assessment without waiting for a KOZ determination that could be granted.