Luzerne County Council debates proposed tax collector ballot question

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | March 11th, 2016 10:19 am

Williams wants voters to decide issue

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

A proposal to ask voters if they want to switch to in-house collection of Luzerne County real estate taxes drew mixed reviews during a council committee meeting this week.

A county council majority had voted to stop using elected collectors in 2013, but a new majority reversed the decision in 2014 before collection by the county treasurer’s office took effect.

Councilman Rick Williams, who chairs the council’s strategic initiatives committee, included tax collection centralization in a batch of 11 proposed home rule charter amendment ballot questions for the November election.

A majority of the 11-member council must approve questions by July for them to be put before voters in November.

Two of the four strategic committee members — Jane Walsh Waitkus and Edward Brominski — told Williams Tuesday they did not support the tax collection change.

Walsh Waitkus, who joined the council in January, said she stands by her prior public statements praising elected collectors.

“They’re the go-to people, and I’m just having a difficult time in doing anything to remove that face of government for people in each municipality. I would have a very difficult time with that,” she said.

Brominski, who had opposed the elimination of elected collectors during his first council term, said he won’t consider supporting the tax collection ballot question.

The move would burden residents who want to pay their county tax bills in person, he said.

“I don’t see a plus side to this,” Brominski said.

Williams, who had supported the in-house tax collection based on the argument it would save money and expand the payment hours and options for property owners, said he believes the council should “put it to bed” by allowing the voters to decide.

“The advantages and disadvantages could be part of the public conversation,” Williams said.

Committee member Linda McClosky Houck, who also had supported the in-house collection, said she has no problem putting the matter on the ballot to obtain “wider input” from voters.

McClosky Houck also pointed out that the county’s financial recovery plan, released by Harrisburg-based Public Financial Management last year, recommended a reduction in compensation for elected collectors. Adherence to this plan’s recommendations would help in the county’s efforts to reverse a credit rating downgrade, officials have said.

The Public Financial plan said the county would save $165,000 annually by paying elected collectors $1.50 per bill instead of $2.50.

The county pays three home rule municipalities — Kingston, Kingston Township and Wilkes-Barre Township — $1.50 per bill to collect county taxes.

The county treasurer’s office collects county taxes in Hazleton, Pittston, Wilkes-Barre, Newport Township and Nanticoke.

County taxes are collected by elected collectors in the remaining 68 municipalities.

When the in-house collection plan was halted in 2014, the elected tax collectors agreed to be paid $2 per bill in 2014 and 2015 and $2.50 in the final two years of their terms. They had previously received $3.50 for both paid and unpaid county tax bills.

The elected collectors and home rule municipalities do not receive the per-bill fee from the county if a property owner fails to pay real estate taxes.

Any changes in the usage or compensation of elected collectors must be made before the posts are on the ballot again in 2017.

Citizen John Newman urged the committee to “let the people decide,” describing the use of elected collectors as an “archaic system.”

The committee also debated proposed charter amendment ballot questions that would alter restrictions involving board/authority members, increase the number of council votes required to reopen the budget after elections, extend the deadline for the county audit, restructure two divisions and extend the time people may serve as temporary division heads.

Citizen Mark Rabo expressed support for the proposal to eliminate a charter provision requiring county board and authority members to wait a year before they can serve on the county council. The restriction could have impacted Rabo because he served on the county redevelopment authority and unsuccessfully sought a seat on the council last year. Rabo said the provision was unconstitutional and planned to challenge it if he won the council seat.

Brominski said the restriction is “absolutely ridiculous.”

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