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Pa. man's bequest is up in air

February 28, 2007|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.

The buses stopped running a few years ago, but the legal status of the Chambersburg Transit Authority and the intent of the man who left half of his estate to the authority are at issue in Franklin County Court.

When William O. Whiteman of Chambersburg died in 2005, the 83-year-old left half of his money to the Chambersburg Transit Authority and the other half to the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter.

Judge Douglas Herman held a hearing Wednesday on a request by M&T Bank - the executor of Whiteman's estate - to determine if a successor organization or other charitable entity should receive the roughly $60,000 that would have gone to the authority. Also attending were attorneys for the animal shelter and M.A. Brightbill Bodyworks Inc. of Lebanon, Pa., and a representative of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office.

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M&T Vice President Alan B. Rhinehart read from Whiteman's will that the man wanted half of his estate to go to the authority "if it is still in existence at the time of his death."

The authority has no buses, office, mailing address or board of directors, Rhinehart testified. He testified that Franklin County operates a public transportation system that performs a similar function as the authority.

Rhinehart read from the July 26, 2004, minutes of the Chambersburg Borough Council meeting, in which the council approved a resolution declaring that "without operating funds, it is understood that the CTA will be inactive after July 16, 2004."

"Inactive," however, might not mean it no longer exists. Kandice J. Guirintano, an attorney for Brightbill Bodyworks, said an authority with outstanding debts cannot be dissolved under state law. The purpose of the statute, she said, is not to allow an authority "to leave private citizens holding the bag."

Brightbill sold two buses to the authority in 2001, but was not paid. It received a default judgment in 2004 for $177,106, according to court records. The buses were reclaimed and resold for $78,000. Brightbill is seeking to recover the balance of the debt, plus interest.

Guirintano said the company has gone to court asking that the borough of Chambersburg be compelled to appoint a board of directors to reactivate the authority.

On behalf of the animal shelter, attorney Michael J. Connor told Herman that if the court determines there is no successor organization and no similar charitable entity, the court should consider giving the entire estate to the shelter.

Connor said Whiteman "clearly had a charitable intent or purpose to give the funds to the animal shelter."

Deputy Attorney General Joanne Book Coles said the state's position is that Whiteman's bequest to the authority "should go to the entity most resembling the transit authority." The state also has no objection to the money being paid toward outstanding debts, she said.

At the time it became inactive, the authority had debts "in excess of $1 million," Borough Manager Eric Oyer said. Chambersburg, Waynesboro and the other municipalities served by the authority have no legal obligation to pay its debts, he said.

Herman said the court will have to determine if Whiteman's wishes would have been to leave his money to a bus system that no longer operates and whether Brightbill Bodyworks has any legal standing in the case, he said.

The judge gave Brightbill 20 days to submit written arguments and another 20 days for the animal shelter and Attorney General's Office to file responses.

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