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Indy’s sewer-fee forgiveness ruled constitutional by high court

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The Supreme Court has turned down homeowners in Indianapolis who sought tax refunds when the city changed its plan for paying for a new sewer line.

In a 6-3 ruling Monday, the court upheld the city's decision to refuse to refund taxes that some homeowners paid up front while it forgave the remaining taxes for people who paid on an installment plan.

Those who paid in full complained that the disparate treatment violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

But Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion that Indianapolis acted properly in changing the payment system because it wanted to reduce the administrative headaches of debt collection. "In our view, Indianapolis' classification has a rational basis," Breyer said.

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said the court was wrong to endorse such a gross disparity in tax treatment.

Roberts said the court should not let stand a decision that ended up charging some homeowners 30 times more than others.

"The equal protection violation is plain," he said, in an opinion joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.

The case, Christine Armour v. City of Indianapolis, led to a divided Indiana Supreme Court decision in May.

The case involves 45 homeowners in an Indianapolis subdivision who sued the city when they didn’t receive refunds of sewer assessments they paid. The case was named for Armour, one of the homeowners, because her name is listed first in the lawsuit.

In 2004, the city assessed each property $9,278 for a sanitary sewer project in the Northern Estates subdivision on the northwest side.  Homeowners were given the option to pay the fee in full or installments.

The next year, the Indianapolis Board of Public Works changed the way it financed sewer projects and adopted a policy that forgave 90 percent or more of the sewer assessments to Northern Estates residents who had elected to pay in installments.

The homeowners who paid the assessments in one lump sum prior to Nov. 1, 2005, were denied a refund by the city.

In 2009, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that the differing treatment of identically situated homeowners violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The city was ordered to pay back $8,968 to the homeowners, plus interest and attorney fees.

However, in a 3-2 decision, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the appeals court judgment and found no constitutional violation under the 14th Amendment had occurred.

Justice Frank Sullivan wrote the majority opinion and was joined by former Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Steven David, while Justices Robert Rucker and Brent Dickson dissented.

The majority found that the city’s rationale was that low- and middle-class families were more likely to have been paying gradually and those who paid in full up front were more capable of affording the assessment.

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  • Sewer Tax
    It would take a couple of minutes to identify which tax payers paid the high "introductory" rate. I don't agree with giving deadbeats and late payers a much better rate. What message does that send to all taxpayers? Don't send that check until the government is on your doorstep?
  • Yes
    Ah-ha sister, you read incorrectly. The justices did not decide anything about the taxpayers' ability to pay a tax. There were NO factual issues in dispute, only legal issues. The only legal issue was whether or not the law had a rational basis.

    A general legal rule is that unless a law implicates certain protected statuses, such as race, gender, religion, etc, the law is allowed to treat people differently, if there is some rational basis for doing so. It is a low legal threshold. The decision was about whether or not the law was rational, not whether or not it was fair. It is perfectly legal for a law to be unfair, so long as it is not irrational or otherwise in violation of constitutional principles. There are plenty of unfair laws on the books, and it is up to the legislature to change them (or in some states, for the voters to change them by referendum or through amendment of their state's constitution).

    So, yes, the court made an accurate determination based on legal principles. You may disagree with the decision, but it was not "an assumption." There were no assumptions at issue, only a legal question of whether or not something was rational or not.
  • Your response is too simple-minded.
    You've just responded with a blanket anti-government platitude that barely relates to the issue at hand.
  • That's unfair.
    OK, I understand that poor people need more protection than rich people. And I get that it might be a pain in the rear to find everyone and pay them back the exactly correct amount.

    But isn't the point of the judiciary to decide what's FAIR, not expedient?

    I mean, we have income-graded taxes in this country, so if the deal had been from the start that wealthier residents pay more, then that would be fair. But changing the rules after the fact is NOT fair.

    If we're going to give money to the poor -- fine, I'm all for it. But not haphazardly; it should be done in a fair and planned-out way as well.
  • Shepard -- no concept of justice

    The problem is judges (government employees) have a very difficult time finding anything wrong with government: unless it results in more government.
    ----
    Ayn Rand Quote
    “When you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – When you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors – When you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you – When you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice – You may know that your society is doomed.”
    –Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957
    • WHAT?
      If I read it right the justices decided that those who (in their opinion) were able to afford the tax would be taxed a whole lot more than those who were (in their opinion)poor and had to pay in installments. This is NOT fair at all, and where are the FACTS about who is considered poor and who is concidered wealthy. They just made an assumption NOT BASED ON FACTS. Besides it is not equal taxation and the homeowners who dutifully paid in full up front should get their money back and be allowed to pay monthly like the others.
      • if you have it we take it.
        I guess this is no different than my friend who decided to keep his low paying job that required zero stress and zero overtime, while i worked my rear off taking on two jobs and saving for the kids college. Well when his kids went to college the school said oh you dont have any money ok you pay this much. whereas i had money so i got to pay full price. yeah fair.

        Oh well those of us that are blessed with the work ethic and the wage have the opportunity to pay more.

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