January 30, 2013
Luzerne County Council kept all tax-collection options open Tuesday by introducing competing ordinances to stop using 69 elected tax collectors or keep them at a reduced pay.
Council must make a decision by Feb. 15.
Four votes were needed to introduce an ordinance.
Only five of the 10 council members in attendance voted to introduce Councilman Jim Bobeck's proposal to switch to in-house collection by the treasurer's office.
Nine council members supported Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck's proposal to keep elected collectors but reduce their pay from $3.50 to $2 for collected bills and from $3.50 to $1 for unpaid ones.
Councilman Rick Morelli and several others indicated they agreed to introduce this option because the payment dollar amounts can be changed before Feb. 15 – not because they support the ordinance as written.
McClosky Houck said she might change her mind on final amounts but proposed the specific reductions to start discussion. She also included a requirement for collectors to forward payments to the county more frequently.
Councilman Eugene Kelleher also proposed an ordinance reducing the tax collector stipend to $2 for collected bills and eliminating any payment for uncollected bills.
Kelleher's proposed ordinance was added to the menu because it received five votes. Several council members voted against it, saying the proposal was unnecessary because the amounts can be changed in McClosky Houck's ordinance.
Some of the tax collectors in the audience expressed disapproval over both pay-reduction amounts.
The tax collectors had offered to keep their payment at $3.50 for paid bills and lower the uncollected bill stipend to $1.50. The first ordinance to receive at least six of 11 votes will take effect, said county Assistant Solicitor Steve Menn.
Councilman Edward Brominski was the only councilman to vote no against all options, and Councilman Stephen J. Urban left before the voting session, citing a work commitment.
Many tax collectors in the audience applauded Brominski when he asked how getting rid of tax collectors will solve problems. What's broken that we're trying to fix? he said.
In response, Councilman Harry Haas said council must be stewards of county funds. We're broke, he said.
Figures of estimated savings were presented by both tax collectors and the treasurer's office, with each side disputing details about the other's accuracy.
The county spends $409,119 on elected tax collectors, and the collectors say their proposed $2 reduction for unpaid bills will save about $50,000 annually.
The treasurer's office maintains it can save $258,555 and generate more than $100,000 in additional revenue from fees by adding three workers to handle the additional work.
Kelleher said his proposal will save about $196,377 annually.
He said he's concerned about eliminating tax collectors because their lawyer attended last week's council meeting to provide a veiled threat that they will sue. The lawyer said council wouldn't have legal authority to stop using elected collectors unless that power was expressly granted or mandated in the home rule charter.
Menn said the solicitor's office researched the matter and is confident the council would win in court if challenged, though he stressed there are no guarantees.
Kingston Mayor Jim Haggerty, an attorney and home rule charter drafter, told council the charter was silent on tax collection because drafters wanted to leave the decision up to council. Haggerty said the state Department of Community and Economic Development's home rule government manual clearly states home rule municipalities are free to devise their own methods of tax collection.
Elected tax collectors say charter drafters told them the charter was silent on the matter because they wanted to ensure tax collectors remained.
Bobeck told his council colleagues they can't make decisions based on lawsuit threats.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban, who attended the meeting by phone, said he does not believe council has the power to stop using elected collectors unless the charter is amended.