Act 15 of 2020 Provides Clarity to Local Government During COVID-19

April 22, 2020

On April 20, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 15 of 2020 (previously SB 841).  Act 15 takes effect immediately and addresses a host of issues for local governments and agencies across the Commonwealth.  The legislation, which also addresses the broader issue of healthcare cost containment, contains the following:

  • Allows for the use of “authorized telecommunications devices” to hold public meetings during the time period of the declaration of a disaster emergency.
  • Allows for a tolling of certain statutory deadlines for municipal boards and agencies to hear and act upon land use and other development applications.
  • Permits taxing bodies to extend the deadline for payment of property taxes at a discount and to waive fees and penalties for late payments.
  • Allows the use of remote notaries through the use of communication technologies.

Use of “Authorized Telecommunications Devices” to Conduct Public Meetings

During the time period of the declaration of a disaster emergency, an agency, department, authority, board, council, governing body or other political subdivision included in the declaration may conduct hearings, meetings, proceedings or other business through the use of an “authorized telecommunications device”, defined as “any device, which permits, at a minimum, audio communication between individuals.” Act 15 also eliminates a physical presence requirement in certain municipal codes, such as the Borough Code, requiring the physical presence at a meeting location of a quorum of the participating members, as long as a quorum is otherwise established through the authorized telecommunications device.

Act 15 requires, to the extent practical, that the local government entity shall post advance notice of each meeting conducted through an authorized telecommunications device (1) on the entity’s publicly accessible website, if any, or (2) in an advertisement of general circulation, or (3) both. The public notice shall include the date, time, technology to be used, and public participation information.  Regarding public participation, Act 15 allows the entity, to the extent practical, to allow for public participation through an authorized telecommunications device or written comments, which may be submitted to the entity’s physical address through the United States mail or to an email account designated by the entity to receive the comments.

If a local entity wants to consider any application, plat, plan, submission, appeal or curative amendment unrelated to the Governor’s COVID-19 declaration, it must provide notice to the public and interested parties at least five days prior to the meeting via (1) a post on the entity’s publicly accessible website, if any, or (2) a newspaper of general circulation, or (3) both.  Finally, in the event a local entity calls a meeting under exigent circumstances, without advance notice to the public, to address any issue related to the Governor’s COVID-19 declaration, minutes of that meeting “shall be posted” within 20 days after the meeting or before the next regularly scheduled meeting, whichever is earlier. It is worth noting that there is no manner of posting specified in the Act.

Extensions for Existing and Pending Approvals

Act 15 also permits certain tolling of the statutory time limits for review, hearing and decision on the “approval” of an application, plat, submission, appeal or curative amendment.  The definition of “approval” is defined by citing to the definition of that term in Section 2 of the 2013 Development Permit Extension Act, which covers local government approvals found in over 30 statutes, including the Municipalities Planning Code, the Flood Plain Management Act, the Stormwater Management Act, the Pennsylvania Construction Code, as well as in various city, borough and township codes.

If an application for approval is received or pending as of the Governor’s COVID-19 declaration dated March 6, 2020, Act 15 allows the number of days required to satisfy statutory time limits in review, hearing, and decision to be tolled as of the date of the disaster declaration, or as of the date received if received during the pendency of the declaration, and shall resume 30 days after the effective date of Act 15 (April 20, 2020).

The Act requires the local entity to notify in writing the applicant of the declaration, the time extension, and of the right to request any meetings, hearings, or proceedings be conducted using telecommunications devices. The failure to receive the notice does not affect the tolling of the number of days.  Within 30 days of the effective date of the Act, an applicant may request that a meeting, hearing or proceeding be held in accordance with Act 15 during the period of the disaster declaration.  The local entity has discretion to proceed with the request under Act 15.  If a proceeding is authorized, the applicant and each party receiving actual notice of the proceeding shall be deemed to waive any challenge under the Sunshine Act or other provision of law that governs the notice, conduct or participation in a meeting or proceeding.

Property Tax Relief

Act 15 authorizes any taxing district, by majority vote of its governing body, to collect the tax at a discount rate no later than August 31, 2020 and to waive any late payment fee or penalty, if paid in full by December 31, 2020.

Authorization for Remote Notary

Act 15 permits remote notarial acts without requiring an individual to personally appear before a notary.  Under Act 15, a notary, subject to certain conditions, may conduct notarial acts remotely by the use of approved communication technology, until 60 days after the termination or expiration of the Governor’s disaster declaration.  If a notary wishes to be able to perform remote notarizations, he or she must notify the DOS 30 days in advance that he or she will be performing notarial acts using communication technology, and identify the technology to be used.

Our public sector attorneys at SMGG are always available to serve as a resource, particularly at this time.  Feel free to contact Gretchen Moore at gmoore@smgglaw.com, Kathy Clark at kclark@smgglaw.com, Alexis Wheeler at awheeler@smgglaw.com, or Alan Shuckrow at ashuckrow@smgglaw.com.