Harrisburg officials want to keep fighting a civil suit that seeks to eject the city’s Public Works Department from its headquarters on Paxton Street, even though it has not paid rent to the building’s owner in more than a year.
On Wednesday, the city’s law bureau asked a Dauphin County judge to delay awarding judgments in favor of Michael Brenner, owner of the property at 1802 Paxton St. that houses Harrisburg’s public works department.
Brenner brought a civil suit against Harrisburg in October, accusing the city of breach of contract and trespassing. He says Harrisburg stopped making the $16,000 monthly rent payment on the building in 2017 and continues to occupy it illegally.
The suit came weeks after Harrisburg City Council authorized the use of eminent domain proceedings to acquire Brenner’s property.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse has said the Paxton Street property is the only suitable site in the city to house the department, since the former car dealership is located outside of a flood plain and can store heavy equipment.
City officials began negotiating a sale with Brenner in 2017, but Papenfuse said this summer that they reached an impasse when Brenner demanded an inflated price.
Papenfuse said the city stopped paying rent on the building shortly thereafter, but intends to pay him what he’s owed when the city acquires the property.
Council authorized the eminent domain proceedings in August.
In October, Brenner asked the courts to eject Harrisburg from the Paxton Street property, which has served as its public works facility since 2014. He also seeks more than $700,000 in unpaid rent, real estate taxes, repairs and court fees.
According to Brenner’s lawyer, neither document provides a substantive legal justification for staying in the property without paying rent.
“There really is no good rationale I’ve heard,” attorney Adam Klein said. “This is money that’s owed to us… [and] I don’t know what they would come up with as a reason for why they can squat on the property.”
The suit against Harrisburg listed more than a dozen complaints, including that the city failed to pay real estate taxes and rent on the building starting in 2017 and failed to reimburse Brenner for roof repairs.
All actions violate the terms of the city’s lease, the suit says, making the city’s continued presence at the Paxton Street property an act of trespassing.
Klein said that Harrisburg’s law bureau offered “general denial” to many of the complaint’s allegations. Absent substantial evidence or rationale, civil court procedures allow a judge to interpret a general denial as an admission, Klein said.
As a result, Klein petitioned the court in December to make a judgment in his client’s favor.
“It’s clear we’re entitled to relief, so going through the dog and pony show is really a waste of everyone’s time if we’re owed for judgment,” Klein said, noting that Brenner does not seek any punitive damages in the case.
But Harrisburg’s law bureau asked the judge on Wednesday to delay the judgment and allow both parties to keep litigating the case.
If the judge complies, both parties will submit briefs and could be called to make oral arguments.
While the city admits that it stopped paying rent to Brenner, it denies that it breached the terms of its lease.
The city also disputes its responsibility to reimburse Brenner for roof repairs, and, moreover, argues that a municipality can’t be ejected from a building it’s using to perform a public service.
The city has not initiated eminent domain proceedings to acquire the building, nor has it resumed negotiations with Brenner to purchase the building outright, deputy city solicitor Tiffanie Baldock said today.
Baldock otherwise declined to comment on the ongoing litigation against the city.
Klein doesn’t dispute the city’s right to seize his client’s property by eminent domain, as long as it pays a fair price.
He also said it’s normal for property owners to fight eminent domain proceedings as they jockey for a better settlement value.
But he doesn’t see any legal justification for withholding rent just because his client stalled a real estate transaction.
“If I were a property owner looking to lease property to the city, I would look at this and be very hesitant to do so,” Klein said. “This is not a good precedent for any city to set.”