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County moves park from tax sale to sheriff's sale

By Keith Gushard, The Meadville Tribune, Pa.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 07--MEADVILLE -- Crawford County commissioners said it was their duty to all taxpayers to move on a sheriff's sale of Conneaut Lake Park to collect more than $925,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties dating back to 1997.

At a special meeting Thursday, Commissioners Jack Lynch, Francis Weiderspahn and C. Sherman Allen unanimously approved both removing Conneaut Lake Park from the annual tax sale Sept. 26 and starting sheriff's sale proceedings.

If the county had opted to have the park go to the annual tax sale, each of the more than 40 parcels within the amusement park would have to be sold individually and all may not sell. By going to a sheriff's sale, Conneaut Lake Park may be sold as one unit.

Commissioners voted to start the sheriff's sale proceedings because a proposed revitalization plan by the Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County didn't show specifics on repaying back taxes and paying current taxes.

The EPACC plan proposes to keep taxes current and to repay the overdue taxes within four years by a combination of freezing the amount of money owed and using insurance proceeds and the sale of potential excess property at the park. EPACC was named administrator of Conneaut Lake Park on June 17 by the Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park.

However, Ira Weiss, the county's special tax counsel for Conneaut Lake Park, said there is not authority in Pennsylvania's County Code for a county to freeze taxes or waive interest or penalties.

"There's no source of funding for the plan," Weiss said told commissioners.

Ted Watts, the county's attorney, said the EPACC's possible use of $600,000 in insurance proceeds from the amusement park's 2013 Beach Club fire could result in litigation since Park Restoration LLC, the lease operator of the Beach Club, also could make a claim for those insurance funds.

Watts said a general promise to pay taxes by using the sale of excess property may not work because there also is another $2.5 million owed by the park to other creditors.

Prior to the vote, commissioners said they couldn't support the EPACC proposal based on the outstanding tax situation and lack of revenue plan.

"The responsibility on our part is to represent all the taxpayers of Crawford County whether they be an individual, business or farm," Lynch said.

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Commissioner Chairman Weiderspahn reminded that Conneaut Lake Park was a campaign issue in the 2011 commissioners race.

"We promised to address Conneaut Lake Park's tax issue," Weiderspahn said. "It's our fiduciary responsibility to do that. Asking it to be put off four years is too long to wait."

Allen agreed, but he noted if the amusement park goes to sheriff's sale, it isn't necessarily Conneaut Lake Park's demise since it would be sold as a unit.

"This issue has been on the table since 2011," Allen said. "It's not a win-win situation in the eyes of Crawford County. No matter what side of the coin we're on (to save or not save Conneaut Lake Park), somebody is not going to be happy."

Conneaut Lake Park owes Conneaut School District, Crawford County and the townships of Summit and Sadsbury a combined $926,031.41 in back property taxes, interest and penalties dating back to 1997, according to the Crawford County Treasurer's Office.

As of August, Conneaut Lake Park owes $633,949.87 to Conneaut School District; $236,164.64 to the county (which includes $23,066.18 in costs associated with the county tax claim bureau); $43,750.85 to Summit Township; and $12,166.05 to Sadsbury Township, according to the Treasurer's Office.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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(c)2014 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.)

Visit The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.) at meadvilletribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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