CHARLESTON – West Virginia assessors scored a slam dunk in a contest with county commissioners over the hiring of employees who determine property values.
The Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously agreed Jan. 25 that Harrison County assessor Cheryl Romano needed no approval from county commissioners to transfer a worker from a job in the general fund to a job with state valuation funds behind it.
The decision sends a wave of relief through the West Virginia Assessors' Association, whose members pleaded on behalf of Romano last year as friends of the court.
"This dispute is really a struggle for power at the county level," the assessors declared. "Tax collection, like all of government, has historically been subject to varying degrees of political and economic influence."
Each side relied on a perfectly clear law. One law requires county commissioners to approve hiring decisions of office holders, and the other grants complete independence to assessors when they spend state valuation funds.
"Our task, then, is to reconcile these two apparently conflicting statutes," Justice Robin Davis wrote. "This is not a difficult task…"
Specific law trumps general law, she wrote.
The Court affirmed Marion Chief Judge David Janes, who the Justices assigned to the case after Harrison County judges recused themselves.
The struggle started in 2005 after the state Property Valuation Training and Procedures Commission approved Romano's choice for a valuation job.
County commissioners petitioned in Harrison County circuit court for a writ of mandamus that would require Romano to submit her selection for their approval.
Romano countered with a mandamus petition of her own, seeking a writ that would compel the county commissioners to stop interfering.
In 2006, Janes granted Romano's writ and denied the county commission's writ. Janes found conflict between the laws and applied the valuation law to the case.
For the county commission, Michael Florio of Clarksburg appealed. He claimed Janes committed an error in finding conflict between the laws.
Florio argued that Romano needed state and county approval.
He wrote that county commissioners should have a role in all hiring decisions of an assessor because valuation fund employees work alongside general fund employees, and because county commissioners would be accountable for their misconduct.
For Romano, Gregory Schillace of Clarksburg argued that the valuation law created a separate category of employees and precluded any involvement of county commissioners.
For the assessors' association, John Kennedy Bailey of Charleston wrote that valuation disparities can cause educational disparities.
Bailey wrote that the Legislature created the valuation fund to guarantee funding for assessors "because a county commission might have other funding priorities."
At oral arguments Jan. 8, Schillace told the Justices that, "A county commission can't have any control over this fund."
Chief Justice Spike Maynard asked if control over the fund was different from control over hiring.
Schillace said hiring was an indirect form of spending.
"What difference does it make who fills the post?" Maynard asked.
"That always matters," Schillace said. "Who somebody owes allegiance to always matters."
Davis asked if one class of employees was paid from the county fund and one class was paid from a state valuation fund.
"That's correct," Schillace said. "The ones that are paid from the valuation fund are the ones who go out and appraise properties."
Maynard said, "So there's no home cooking."
After oral arguments, the Justices decided the matter in a snappy 17 days.
Romano's victory and a unanimous defeat for Nationwide Insurance in a Kanawha County case came out together as the Court's first decisions of the year.