Last updated: February 20. 2013 3:15AM - 565 Views

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WILKES-BARRE – After more than two hours of discussing tax collection options Tuesday night, Luzerne County Council decided to revisit the subject at a special work session next week.

Council members have until Feb. 15 to decide whether they want to change the pay or usage of 69 tax collectors who are elected this year. The options: keep tax collectors for county property tax collection at a pay of $3.50 per bill, pay the tax collectors less or collect county taxes in-house or through an outside company.

Council must vote on an ordinance at two separate meetings to enact changes.

More than 30 tax collectors attended Tuesday's meeting, with Hazle Township tax collector Mike DeCosmo speaking on their behalf. DeCosmo announced the tax collectors are willing to accept $1.50 – $2 less – to process each unpaid bill, which will save roughly $100,000.

The $3.50 pay for each paid bill would remain the same. The county spends $409,119 on elected tax collectors.

County Manager Robert Lawton projects the county could save $258,555 by switching collection to the county treasurer's office, which would hire three additional employees to handle the increased workload.

Council also could competitively bid the collection to see if outside entities could provide the service at a lower cost than the treasurer's office, Lawton said.

The 69 elected tax collectors handle 116,900 tax bills, while the treasurer's office collects 22,000 county tax bills in Wilkes-Barre, Pittston and Nanticoke.

DeCosmo questioned the accuracy of the county's projected savings for in-house collection, saying the estimate doesn't appear to realistically factor in all costs.

He also expressed doubt the treasurer's office can replace 69 people with three people.

That's a decision I guess you people have to make, DeCosmo said.

Councilman Eugene Kelleher asked county Treasurer's Office Manager/Tax Administrator Laura Beers if the office will be equipped to handle the work.

Absolutely, Beers said.

DeCosmo also emphasized the customer service provided by elected collectors, saying property owners – particularly the elderly – value the ability to pay their taxes in person locally, with weekend and evening hours available.

Beers stressed the benefit of providing consistent payment hours during weekday working hours instead of the differing hours offered by elected collectors. Property owners also would have the option to pay at banks or by credit or debit card for an additional fee with in-house collection, she said.

She noted Social Security payments are being switched to direct deposit or debit cards and questioned why property owners would have a problem mailing payments by check.

I don't see why that is so difficult for the average person no matter what their age is, she said.

Interim Treasurer Dominick DePolo said his office developed the proposal to help in the county's financial recovery. We're looking for ways to save money – bottom line, Beers said.

Philadelphia area Attorney Michael Savona, who is representing the county Tax Collectors Association, told council it had no legal authority to stop using elected collectors because that option wasn't expressly stated in the county's home rule charter.

Savona said the county must continue paying elected collectors because the charter was silent on the matter, and he said case law established the compensation for elected collectors can't be unreasonably reduced.

Councilman Jim Bobeck, an attorney, said he disagreed with Savona's interpretation.

Elected tax collectors have questioned why council would risk a potential lawsuit.

Council members Rick Morelli and Stephen A. Urban said they've already reached a decision to keep the elected collectors. Morelli said he is not convinced the treasurer's office is prepared to handle the added responsibility and said in-house collection will reduce customer service.

Urban cited a lack of parking at the courthouse, where the treasurer's office is housed. He said the elected collectors do an excellent job and said county officials should impose more cuts in court branches before messing with elected tax collectors.

In other business Tuesday, Lawton said 105 people have applied for eight division head positions to date. The first review of applicants begins Monday.

Lawton said he wants to start proposing selected applicants to council for its confirmation by the end of February.

What's next

Luzerne County Council will hold a special work session to discuss county tax collection options at 6 p.m. Jan. 29 in the county's Emergency Management Agency building, Water Street, Wilkes-Barre.

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