Council eliminates using tax collectors

Jennifer Learn-Andes

February 13, 2013

The Luzerne County treasurer's office will collect county property tax bills starting in 2014, ending long-standing reliance on 69 elected collectors, a council majority decided Tuesday night.

Six of the 11 council members supported the change: Jim Bobeck, Harry Haas, Rick Williams, Elaine Maddon Curry, Linda McClosky Houck and Eugene Kelleher.

Strong opposition was voiced by Councilmen Rick Morelli, Stephen A. Urban, Stephen J. Urban and Edward Brominski. Council Chairman Tim McGinley also voted against the change.

The council members who supported the switch praised elected collectors for their service but said they can't ignore the projected $258,555 in annual savings from in-house collection.

They also added a stipulation requiring the savings to be earmarked for future debt reduction.

If we turn our backs on this kind of money, we would be foolhardy, Maddon Curry said. We were elected to do things in a different way.

Kelleher said the savings will total more than $1 million over four years -- the term of elected tax collectors. He pointed to citizens who said council should take advantage of every opportunity to save money and not leave any money on the table.

He said the treasurer's office can without a doubt handle the increased work with the addition of three employees.

But Morelli blasted the change, saying he does not believe the treasurer's office will be equipped for the additional responsibility. He predicted council will receive complaints from property owners who encounter issues paying their county tax bills and said he will direct these people to council members who supported in-house collection.

Morelli also credited elected collectors for their willingness to take a pay cut.

The elected collectors are paid $3.50 for both paid and unpaid county tax bills. They offered to accept $2.75 for paid and $1 for unpaid, with a 25-cent bonus for each paid bill if a collector exceeds prior three-year collection rates. The estimated savings for that option: up to $125,000.

Council members had also proposed keeping elected collectors and reducing their stipends to $2 for paid and $1 or nothing for unpaid bills. Council didn't vote on those proposals because in-house collection was first on the agenda and passed.

Morelli's motion to reduce the $665,000 budgeted for eight new division heads by 25 percent was rejected by seven council members.

He said he made the motion because some of his colleagues cited cost savings as a primary reason for switching to in-house collection.

I threw it out there just to show the public how inconsistent this council is, Morelli said.

Several council members said the county already has received applications for the division head positions based on advertisements that listed the salary ranges, which were adopted as part of the 2013 budget.

Changing the salaries after recruitment would make the county seem untrustworthy and schizophrenic, Maddon Curry said.

Attending the meeting by speaker phone, Councilman Stephen A. Urban challenged the legality of the tax collection change because the option wasn't expressly granted in the home rule charter.

Council's decision is ripe for a lawsuit by tax collectors, he said.

After the vote, Hanover Township tax collector Mildred Luba said the county tax collectors association will review options involving litigation. The elected collectors would have to chip in their own funds toward litigation, she said.

Kelleher said he believes a recent assertion made by attorney Jim Haggerty, a home rule charter drafter, that council has authority to stop using elected collectors.

Several tax collectors in the audience said after the meeting they will actively campaign against council members who voted to stop using their services.

Haas, who plans to seek re-election this year, said he was voting his conscience.

I will not vote politically, but I will vote what's best for Luzerne County, he said.

McClosky Houck, who also is contemplating another run, said council members must look at everything as they attempt to rectify the county's financial problems.

Several citizens encouraged council members to vote for in-house collection, while elected collectors and their supporters emphasized the service provided under the current system.

Swoyersville tax collector Nancy Keating said she analyzed the number of bills and county staffing and believes 15 treasurer's office employees would be required to handle the workload during the busy two-month period when tax bills are discounted.