Last updated: January 18. 2014 10:26PM - 5656 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com

Grace Griffin outside of her Larksville home.
Grace Griffin outside of her Larksville home.
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Grace Griffin could buy a new car if she had all the real estate tax payments made on her modest Larksville family homestead over the past five decades.

The Luzerne County assessor’s office keeps records dating back to 1965. Matched with school, county and local tax millage rates for each of those years, the grand total tax bill was $22,007 on the Griffin property.

“Wow. Imagine what else you could do with that money,” the 71-year-old said when informed of the dollar amount.

Her father bought the Weavertown Road home on 1.5 acres in 1950, and it was passed to Griffin when he died in 1997.

The property is assessed at $60,300, resulting in a $1,350 tax bill last year.

Griffin said she receives several hundred dollars off that bill through tax breaks because she is elderly, on the lower end of the income scale and lives in her property as opposed to renting it out, but she still struggles to keep up with tax payments that rarely stay flat from year to year.

Taxes on the Griffin property went from $154 in 1965 and steadily grew as taxing bodies boosted their millages to bring in more revenue. They now are about nine times what they were 49 years ago.

• By 1997, the combined bill was over $500.

• Her bill was $750 in 2008.

• Reassessment upped her assessment with a bill of $1,142 in 2009. The tax tab would have been higher if she hadn’t successfully challenged her new assessment.

County taxes are set to increase 8 percent this year, which will boost her county tax bill $16 to $337. School taxes are the largest portion of the bill — $853 — with the remaining $175 charged by Larksville borough.

Tax bills for the county and municipalities are scheduled to be mailed out in a few weeks. School tax bills typically are sent in the summer.

“I paid a couple hundred dollars when I first took over the property, and now I’m over a thousand dollars,” Griffin said.

Tax revisions sought

Griffin formed the Citizens Against Property Taxes organization, which is pushing for state legislation to replace school property tax with revenue from an increased and expanded sales tax and earned income tax. It is the latest effort in a more than two-decade battle by citizen activists to get state tax laws changed.

“If we don’t get this legislation passed soon, I don’t know where we’re going to be,” Griffin said. “People are not going to be able to afford to remain in their homes.”

She’s become frustrated with fellow property owners who cry for change but leave it up to a small faction to attend meetings and lobby legislators for tax reform.

“The power is in the people, and many are sitting back and doing nothing,” Griffin said.

Without tax reform, she predicts public-sector-pay increases for unionized workers, capital projects, pensions and other government expenses will continue pushing up real estate tax rates.

More property owners will sell or walk away from homes because they won’t have the means to pay for tax hikes in addition to other rising expenses, she said.

“We’ll have more and more absentee landlords in this area,” she said. “Something has got to change.”

Paid $55K in taxes

Jackson Township property owner Ed Chesnovitch, who purchased his home in 1963, has paid paid $55,000 in property taxes since 1965.

“We pay and pay. What do you really get for that?” he said.

Property taxes fund large portions of the public education system, the county criminal justice system, county prison and a host of other government services.

But Chesnovitch said he doesn’t feel the direct benefits of most services covered by his real estate payments, which totaled $2,262 last year for his 1,300-square-foot, one-story home on three largely undeveloped acres. His property tax bill was $230 in 1965.

Real estate taxes essentially make him a renter because he will lose his property if he doesn’t pay them, he said.

“You don’t own your home. The government owns your home,” Chesnovitch said.

He’s not gung-ho about proposed legislation increasing and expanding the sales tax because he believes it could be equally painful on his wallet, though supporters argue the change would force people who don’t own property to contribute. His preferred approach is keeping pressure on elected officials at local government meetings about their spending.

Chesnovitch and former county controller Walter Griffith volunteered spur of the moment, without attorney representation, to challenge the county’s 2008 court filing to borrow $17 million to cover debt. Their objections helped convince a judge to lower the county’s borrowing to $5.3 million.

The 76-year-old also has approached the podium at municipal and county meetings blasting proposed expenses, big and small. He acknowledged he may seem like a nitpicker at times but said he’s thinking of the big picture.

“It all adds up in the end. They shouldn’t be given carte blanche to spend our money,” Chesnovitch said.

Still paying at 96

Ninety-six-year-old Warren Shiner bought his Kingston property for $12,000 in 1947 and has racked up around $30,112 in real estate tax payments since 1965.

Shiner supports the efforts of his son, Brian, who actively attends county meetings pushing for accountability and spending reductions.

The elder Shiner said he’s been frustrated with rising tax bills but tries not to get worked up because they must be paid just like utility bills and mortgages. He has labored in multiple jobs simultaneously, including some physically straining work that led to knee problems and other ailments later in life, because he treasures his West Walnut Street home.

“You just try to stick with it and pay because what can you do otherwise? I don’t want to see my name on the tax sale listing,” Shiner said.

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