County mails bills for homestead tax errors before fees, penalties decided

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | August 11th, 2016 6:20 pm

Luzerne County has mailed bills to the owners of 1,400 properties flagged as having wrongly received more than one homestead tax break, even though the county council is still debating whether interest and penalties should be added.

County officials had indicated Tuesday the bills would be delayed until the matter was decided. The timing of the mailing came up when four council members provided the necessary votes to introduce an ordinance tacking on interest and penalties.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban, who supported the ordinance, said during the meeting he believes county Manager C. David Pedri “overstepped his bounds” by mailing the bills without seeking council clarification on the addition of interest and fees. At least two council members said the bills had not been mailed, and nobody from the administration had clarified the mailing was in progress.

Pedri said Thursday that it was too late to stop the mailing. An outside vendor had printed the bills and deposited them at the post office Monday, the day before the vote. He noted the ordinance surfaced late and was not part of the voting agenda released the Friday before the meeting.

He informed the council of the mailing Thursday and said the county treasurer’s office will send out additional bills to the impacted property owners if the council votes to add fees on Aug. 23.

The mailing evolved from the March 2015 discovery that several past and present officials had received more than one homestead discount on real estate taxes, even though the law allows only one owner-occupied primary residence per property owner.

Participants saved $45 to $57 on their county real estate taxes annually from 2009 until the county-funded break was halted in 2015. The maximum repayment will be $313.51 for properties that incorrectly received the break all six years, although the county has offered a 2-percent discount for those who pay within two months, or by Oct. 10, county officials said Thursday.

A 10-percent penalty will be added if the bills, which are dated Aug. 11, remain unpaid after four months, or Dec. 12.

The bills are treated the same as regular real estate taxes. After Dec. 31, unpaid bills will be turned over to the county tax-claim office, which will impose additional penalties and proceed with a tax sale if the delinquency remains for more than two years.

The county billed the 1,400 property owners a combined $345,344, according to records obtained Thursday. Several bill recipients already have come forward saying their homesteads were permissible because their second homes were deeded by parents who continue to live in them, something known as a “life tenancy.”

The proposed ordinance, introduced by Councilman Edward Brominski, seeks to implement additional interest and a 10-percent penalty authorized by state law for property owners who file false homestead applications.

“Of all the people who enjoyed the exemption, a small percentage failed to follow the explicit instructions on the application, or for that matter pay attention to their bills they received to see any errors,” Brominski said in an email to his council colleagues Thursday.

Brominski said he is “strongly opposed” to any forgiveness of penalties and interest, and cited the private Westmoreland Club in Wilkes-Barre as an example of a six-year homestead recipient that should not be off the hook.

“We go to the ordinary taxpayer when we want more money, but those who violate the law are given a free pass,” he wrote.

Some of his colleagues questioned the fairness of additional fees because the county ultimately approved the applications and some property owners hadn’t realized they were receiving multiple breaks.

Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley said at least one person filled out homestead paperwork clearly stating he already received the break on another property, and the second break was still approved by the county.

Six of 11 votes are required for the ordinance to pass. Councilman Harry Haas and Eileen Sorokas are abstaining because they are among the bill recipients.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

What’s next

The county council will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance adding interest and penalties to the homestead bills at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 23 at the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.

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

What’s next

The county council will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance adding interest and penalties to the homestead bills at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 23 at the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.