After House Bill 1564 stalled in the Pennsylvania Senate, the Senate recently passed Senate Bill 841 which contained additional emergency measures addressing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While the bill will not have the force of law until it is both passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and signed by Governor Wolf, both school districts and municipalities should be aware of the bill’s contents as some of the provisions affect both entities. The following is a list of the portions of the bill which are particularly relevant to public entities.
Property Tax Relief
As a threshold matter, the term “Taxing District” in Senate Bill 841 only includes: cities of any class, counties of any class, boroughs, towns, or townships of any class, and incorporated towns. The definition does not include school districts. Under this provision, a taxing district may, by a majority vote of its governing body, collect property taxes at the discount rate (if any) no later than August 31, 2020 and/or waive any fee or penalty otherwise associated with the late payment of the property tax if paid in full by December 31, 2020. Importantly, any taxing district electing to exercise either of those options must do so by enacting a resolution and delivering a copy of same to the elected tax collector of the taxing district within thirty (30) days of the law’s enaction by the Governor.
School District Contracted Service Providers
This provision permits a school entity to renegotiate a contract for “contract service providers” to ensure that contracted personnel and fixed costs, including administrative and equipment costs, are maintained during the period of school closure. Notably, the language is permissive and does not mandate that school districts renegotiate contracts. If, however, the school district chooses to do so, the contract service providers must submit weekly documentation to the school district to show that the provider’s complement levels (i.e. the personnel working for the service provider) remain at or above the levels which existed as of March 13, 2020.
Remote Local Government Meetings
This provision specifically permits governmental entities to meet remotely and conduct governmental business through the use of an “authorized telecommunications device” for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. The term “authorized telecommunications device” is defined broadly in the bill as “any device which permits, at a minimum, audio communication between individuals.” Under this bill, a physical quorum is not required to be present at the meeting location to conduct business, so long as the quorum is established remotely through the authorized telecommunications device. Additionally, a governmental entity must post advance notice of each remote meeting either on the entity’s website or in a newspaper of general circulation (or both). The notice must include the date and time of the meeting, the technology to be used, and information related to the public participation process. If a public entity calls a meeting under exigent circumstances, without advance public notice, to address issues related to the coronavirus pandemic it must post draft meeting minutes within twenty (20) days after the meeting or prior to the next regularly scheduled meeting, whichever is earlier.
Under this bill, a public entity is not permitted to consider any “application, plat, plan, submission, appeal, or curative amendment unrelated to the Governor’s declaration of disaster emergency” during a meeting unless “notice to the public and interested parties has been provided at least five days prior to the meeting via a post on the entity’s publicly accessible website, if any, in a newspaper of general circulation, or both.” Regarding public participation, a governmental entity must allow for participation through an authorized telecommunication device or via written comments. Written comments may be submitted via the US Mail or via an email address designated by the entity itself. The law also tolls statutory time periods for “approvals, applications, plats, plans, submissions appeals, or curative amendments” received or pending as of the date of the Governor’s declaration, and shall resume thirty (30) days after the effective date of the law. Applicants must be notified in writing of the time extensions. Applicants may request meetings, hearings, or proceedings as required by law, and the public entity may proceed with said hearing or other proceeding.
Finally, Senate Bill 841 includes an amendment to the Emergency Services law, specifically permitting the governing body of a political subdivision to meet without a physical quorum, so long as a quorum is established remotely. This amendment contemplates a future, unrelated disaster declaration so the rights of the public entity are more specifically outlined.
Our office will provide an update when Senate Bill 841 is enacted into law and, as always, we will continue to advise local governmental entities of their responsibilities under this and any subsequent legislation.