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COVID-19 Municipal Update: ACT 15 of 2020 — A Primer for Municipalities

access_time Posted on: April 24th, 2020

Act 15 has significant implications for local government.

On Monday, April 20th, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 15 2020 (the “Act”), which, among other things, has significant implications for the administration of local government in Pennsylvania for the duration of the Disaster Emergency that was declared on March 6th, 2020.

Specifically, the Act addresses three issues relevant to local government:
  • The Act allows municipalities, for the duration of Disaster Emergency, to conduct business through telecommunication devices, provided that public participation is permitted to the maximum extent possible
  • The Act tolls the time limits for applications received by a municipality or pending before the municipality for a period of 30 days
  • The Act authorizes local governments to extend the discount period for local property taxes and waive all fees and penalties associated with them as long as the taxes are paid in full by December 31st, 2020

LOCAL GOVERNMENT MEETINGS

An agency, department, authority, commission, board, council, governing body or other entity of a political subdivision may conduct hearings, meetings, proceedings or other business through the use of an authorized telecommunications device until the expiration or termination of the COVID-19 disaster emergency. A municipality is not required to have a physical quorum present at the meeting, so long as a quorum of members is established by those participating via the authorized telecommunications device, which is simply any device that permits audio communication between individuals.

To the extent practicable, a local municipality must give advance notice of the meeting either on its website or in a newspaper of general circulation within the municipality. This notice should not only include the date and time of the meeting, but also the technology that will be used to conduct the meeting and how the public can access that technology to participate in the meeting. Public participation should be allowed to the extent practicable, either through the technology that is being used to conduct the meeting, or through written comments that are submitted to the municipality in advance of the meeting. The municipality should designate a mailing address or e-mail address to which any comments can be sent.

If no advance notice of the meeting can be given to the public of a meeting held solely on a telecommunication device, the minutes of the meeting must be posted within 20 days of the meeting, or before the next regularly scheduled meeting, whichever occurs first.
One specific situation the Legislature addressed is if a municipality plans to consider an application, plat, plan, submission, appeal or curative amendment unrelated to the Governor’s declaration of disaster emergency related to COVID-19 during a meeting, at least 5 days’ notice of the meeting and its forum must be given to the public and interested parties via the municipality’s website, a newspaper of general circulation, or both.

PERMIT TOLLING

The number of days provided to satisfy statutory time limits in review, hearing, and decision, of any approval, application, plat, plan, submission, appeal or curative amendment received or pending as of the date of or during the Governor’s declaration of a disaster emergency related to COVID-19 is tolled, or suspended, for a period of 30 days after the effective date of the Act, which is April 20th, 2020. By way of two examples:

  • If a zoning hearing was held on March 1st2020, and under normal statutory requirements a decision would be required to be issued within 45 days, under the Act, that period would be tolled as of March 6th, 2020, and resume 30 days from the effective date of the Act, which is May 20th, 2020. This would mean that a decision would have to be issued within 40 days of May 20th, 2020, because 5 of the days in the statutory period had already elapsed between March 1st, 2020 and March 6th, 2020.
  • If an application for a zoning hearing was submitted to a municipality on March 10th, 2020, and under normal statutory requirements the zoning hearing was required to be held within 60 days of the submittal of such application, under the Act, that period would be tolled until 30 days after the effective date of the Act, which is May 20th, 2020. This means that a hearing must be held on the application within 60 days of May 20th, 2020.

The Act also gives an applicant the right to request a meeting, hearing, or proceeding, so long as that request is made by May 20th, 2020. Granting a request by an applicant is at the discretion of the municipality, and if the request is granted by the municipality, the applicant and each party receiving actual notice of the proceeding is deemed to waive any provision relating to open meetings, notice, and conduct or participation in a meeting or proceeding.

PROPERTY TAX DEADLINES

A taxing district may, by majority vote of the taxing district’s governing body, do any of the following for the collection of a tax imposed on the assessed value of real property that would otherwise be due by December 31, 2020:

  • Collect the tax at the taxing district’s prescribed discount rate, if any, no later than August 31, 2020.
  • Waive any fee or penalty otherwise associated with the late payment of the tax if paid in full by December 31, 2020.

By May 20th, 2020, the governing body of the taxing district must pass a resolution and deliver it to the tax collector if extending the tax deadlines. This provision only applies to the 2020 tax year.

PERMANENT CHANGES

While all of the above amendments apply only to the Disaster Emergency declared as result of COVID-19, the Act does make one permanent change to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Services Code, in which the oft-cited provision regarding the “suspension of formal requirements” is found. The legislature amended Section 7501(d) of the Code to make explicit that a physical quorum is never required to conduct business in the event of an emergency declared by the governor or a municipality.

The attorneys of CGA Law Firm stand ready to advise you as this rapidly changing situation continues to evolve. If you have any questions about the provisions of Pennsylvania Act 15 of 2020, please contact a CGA Municipal Law Attorney.

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