News

Lebanon revitalization program challenged in court

Written by John Latimer, Lebanon Daily News | Jul 30, 2016 10:29 AM

Lebanon's new Business Improvement District is being challenged in court by a local attorney who owns property in the designated area.

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Lebanon attorney Edward Schock, whose office is in the Business Improvement District, explains to City Council why he thinks the voting for the BID was flawed. Photo: John Latimer, Lebanon Daily News

Edward Schock, who practices law at 936 Cumberland St., has filed a lawsuit in the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas seeking to prevent the BID on the grounds it was established illegally because it gave a vote to residents living in the designated area who will not be required to fund it.

A BID is a five-year economic revitalization program, established by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 2000 that allows a designated area of a city to receive services that go beyond those provided by property taxes, which are meant to attract visitors to the area.

Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello proposed establishing a BID in Lebanon's central business district last year and appointed a steering committee to develop its rules and objectives.

The committee established a roughly 15-square-block area around Cumberland Street as the BID zone and determined that owners of commercial properties in the BID would be assessed a two-mill fee, or a minimum of $250, to finance the program, including paying the salary of a downtown manager to run it.

After holding public hearings, the proposal was put to a vote with the rules that Schock is challenging. They included giving a vote to both assessed and non-assessed property owners and establishing that 40 percent would have to oppose the BID to defeat it. The rules also required property owners opposing the BID to submit their notarized vote in writing, while non-responders were counted as "yes" votes.

Schock filed his lawsuit for a declaratory judgement in March and presented a brief in May, after city solicitor Donna Brightbill filed a motion claiming that the statute creating BIDs makes it clear "that it is not only the assessed property owners who have say, but it is also the affected property owners, whether or not they are assessed, who have a say in the process."

The argument in Schock's brief hinges around the use of the phrases "affected owners" and "benefited owners," which are used interchangeably. He maintains that only those assessed the fee fall into the affected or benefited owner category, and those who are not assessed, including residential property owners and non-profits, do not.

"The assessed properties are directly affected financially by enactment of the BID plan, nothing changes for exempt properties," Schock wrote in his brief.

It's the same argument Schock made at a Lebanon City Council meeting in February when council voted to approve the BID.

The motion made by Brightbill was dismissed by Judge Bradford Charles on June 24, when he ruled that both sides should present written arguments by Aug. 24. Unless Schock or the city requests oral arguments, Charles said he will rule promptly on the written arguments.

Meanwhile, the case has apparently derailed the search for a manager to run the BID.

In May, Capello and representatives of Lebanon 2000, the advisory committee that will oversee the BID, said they had narrowed down a list of candidates and were a month or two away from hiring a downtown manager.

At Monday night's City Council meeting, the mayor said the committee is starting the hiring process again, but did not fully explain why, referring questions to Dinny  Kinlock, chairman of the search committee.

"I don't want to speak on behalf of the (committee) but it is my understanding, I attend their meetings, that they are concerned about moving forward until they hear what the results of the challenge are," Capello said.

When reached on Tuesday, Kinlock confirmed Capello's comments, stating that the search committee felt it was unfair to not be able to tell candidates when the jobs starting date will be. Because the search process began in March, he added, the committee decided it was best to begin the process again.

"We felt it was kind of a disadvantage for applicants at this point," he said. "One of the things the committee thought it obviously wants to do is tell a candidate when the start date is. The process has taken longer than we wanted it to. But the most important goal remains to get the most qualified candidate."

Capello's news that the search committee was beginning again was greeted with skepticism by council members Tony Matula and Cornell Wilson, both of whom voted for the BID but were critical of the voting process and a perceived lack of transparency in the work being done by Lebanon 2000.

Matula told Capello the first six months of the BID program have passed with very little progress.

"We both voted yes, with reservations. We know that. There is no question about it," he said. "I will say this, I expect a little bit more done in this project in the next two months than I've seen in the last six."

Capello disputed Matula's assertion that little has been done, stating that office space for the program has been donated, efforts to improve downtown lighting are underway, a security-camera study has begun and a BID web page has been secured.

"When you say that nothing has been accomplished and we haven't been moving forward -  we've gotten a lot done," she said.

Updated to add comments from Dinny Kinloch.


This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between the Lebanon Daily News and WITF. 

Published in Lebanon, News

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