Nauman Smith secures public records victory for news media client seeking tax revenues generated in the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone
The Commonwealth Court has issued an order and opinion affirming that total tax revenues generated by certain taxes levied in the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone (“NIZ”) are public records. This will allow the public to discern which taxes have had the most impact on the revitalization of Allentown’s downtown.
State and local taxes collected from the NIZ are used to repay debt service and bonds issued by the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority to fund various economic development projects within the zone, including the PPL Center (an 8,500 seat professional ice hockey area), the Butz Corporate Center (a 22,000 square feet office complex), the Trifecta Building (a 40,000 square feet mixed used building), and the Waterfront (a 26-acre mixed-use campus providing panoramic water views and direct access to the Lehigh River).
Andrew Wagaman, a reporter for The Morning Call (collectively “Requester”), submitted a request for public records to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law, seeking a breakdown of total tax revenues generated by each tax levied in NIZ. The Department denied the request, asserting that total tax revenues are confidential “return information” under various tax statutes and regulations.
Requester filed anappeal to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR). During the appeal, the Department agreed to disclose total tax revenues paid by large numbers of taxpayers. In response, the Requester agreed that the Department could withhold total tax revenues for taxes paid by three or less taxpayers. Despite the Requester’s concession, the Department continued to refuse to disclose total tax revenues for nine types of taxes without further explanation of how disclosure would reveal individual taxpayer liability. The OOR agreed with the Requester’s position and ordered the Department to disclose total tax revenues for all types of taxes except those paid by three or less taxpayers.
The Commonwealth Court affirmed the OOR’s final determination. The court rejected the Department’s argument that total tax revenues are categorically exempt as “return information.” The court explained that tax confidentiality statutes and regulations prevent disclosure of individual taxpayer liability not total revenues generated. The court explained: “Ultimately, the Department did not establish that the tax revenue broken down by type of tax, showing only Tax Total for each type of tax in the NIZ – without the number of taxpayers of each tax, which was not requested – qualifies as confidential tax information.”
The Commonwealth Court’s decision has public importance because the nine taxes at issue generate the majority of tax revenues in the NIZ. The public may now discern which taxes generate the most revenue.
The Morning Call was represented in the Commonwealth Court by Nauman Smith attorney Josh Bonn. Attorney Bonn is a member of Nauman Smith’s Right-to-Know Law and Media Law practice group. He represents media entities in public transparency matters including public records requests and appeals and access to court proceedings. For more information, please contact Attorney Bonn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717.236.3010 x 129.