Shickshinny had greatest tax base loss, Plains Township the greatest gain

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | July 9th, 2016 2:10 pm

Shickshinny Mayor Beverly Moore wasn’t surprised her borough experienced the greatest property tax base erosion in Luzerne County over the past year.

More than 30 flood-ravaged borough structures were bought out and demolished by the government since a record Susquehanna River flood pummeled the region nearly five years ago.

The borough’s tax base decreased 9.13 percent, from $27.7 million to $25.2 million, according to a new snapshot reading completed by the county assessor’s office.

“There is grass everywhere in Shickshinny now — minus structures, minus people and minus families,” said Moore, who has served as mayor for 20 years and decided to stay rebuild her flood-damaged home and stay put.

While 44 municipalities lost tax base value since June 2015 due to changes such as demolition and assessment appeal reductions, new construction and other boosts in the 32 remaining municipalities increased the county tax base overall, according to a Times Leader comparison of the new and old reports.

The county’s tax base grew nearly 1 percent, from $19.86 billion to $20.05 billion during the one-year period, the report shows.

County Assessment Director Anthony Alu said advancement into the $20 billion category shows “good economic activity.”

The county picked up 86 properties, bringing the total taxable parcels to 157,503.

“The tax base is like a dart board, a moving target, because property value is constantly added and reduced. Whenever you have positive growth, it’s a good thing,” Alu said.

The county, school districts and municipalities rely on the tax base for real estate property tax revenue.

For example, the county would receive up to $115.2 million on a base of $20.05 billion under the current county tax rate. The county’s 2016 budget counts on $104.45 million from current-year tax revenue, largely because some revenue is sacrificed due to tax-break programs such as Keystone Opportunity Zones, or KOZs.

Tax base winners

Plains Township had the largest percentage tax base gain in the last year — 27 percent — primarily because the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino recently was added to the taxable category with a new $152.5 million assessment.

The new assessment was calculated because the casino previously paid flat amounts in lieu of taxes under a court-approved agreement that expired the end of 2015.

Jenkins Township ranked second in growth, at 6.18 percent, bringing its tax base to $433.6 million, the report shows.

Township Supervisor Stanley Rovinski credits expansion in several residential developments, saying he feared housing gains would be wiped out by more than 60 flood-related demolitions that have occurred since 2011.

“I’m thrilled that we still have a great tax base,” Rovinski said.

Wilkes-Barre, the county seat, maintained its spot at the top with the highest overall value, although Hazle Township continues to close in.

The city’s tax base is $1.423 billion, a 1-percent drop since June 2015.

Meanwhile, Hazle Township’s base grew 0.8 percent to a new $1.4 billion.

Township officials have predicted continued new construction, mainly from expansion at the Humboldt Industrial Park off Interstate 81, will push its tax base above Wilkes-Barre’s in coming years.

In Shickshinny, borough officials are determined to avoid a municipal tax hike increasing the burden on borough property owners who remain, Moore said.

The land cleared through flood buyouts can’t be developed but may be used for recreation that could attract visitors who support businesses that opted to rebuild or move into the borough after the record flood, she said.

“We’re a small river town, and we are surviving, but the last thing we need is a tax increase,” Moore said.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.