Division of commercial property’s tax bill bungled years ago

Last updated: March 06. 2014 11:13PM - 3691 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com

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The Luzerne County Assessor’s Office is investigating whether the assessment of a multi-unit Wilkes-Barre commercial property was bungled years ago.

Nanticoke resident John Stapinski never received a tax bill from the county or Wilkes-Barre Area School District on the portion of an Amber Lane commercial building he owns that is currently occupied by Rite Aid.

The reason: The county assessor’s office never followed its protocol to separate and assess the unit when Stapinski’s deed was recorded with the county in 1997, a review of public records show.

In comparison, Wilkes-Barre, which handles its own property values, acted on the deed and gave the drug store unit a separate assessment, triggering a city tax bill that totalled $2,600 last year.

But Stapinski said he has been paying his school and county taxes a different way, through the nonprofit Commission on Economic Opportunity (CEO), which is listed as owner of the entire building, including the unit housing Rite Aid.

CEO, which provides a multitude of services for the needy, may be eligible for tax-exempt status as a charitable organization but has not pursued that option.

It pays taxes on an assessment of $1.08 million, which equates to $23,000 in school and county taxes based on current millage rates. The city assessment and tax payment were not immediately available.

CEO Administration Director Roderick Blaine said Stapinski pays the agency a percentage fee for his usage of common areas of the building and land.

County Assessment Director Tony Alu said the assessment of all units in the building must be examined and corrected by his office.

The situation came to light when The Times Leader examined the ownership due to Rite Aid’s recent announcement that it is closing that store.

CEO’s assessment may be reduced by removal of Stapinski’s unit, Alu said. The assessment also may end up the same or increase because records indicate other units purchased by CEO may not have been included in the value, he said.

Deeds indicate there are seven retail units and two storage rooms in the structure.

Stapinski’s 1997 deed should have prompted an individual assessment for Stapinski’s unit and possibly each of the other units, similar to separate assessments the county assigns to each condominium in a residential building, Alu said.

The nonprofit CEO has offices and a food bank in the rest of the building not owned by Stapinski, Blaine said.

CEO’s $1.08 million assessment on the property is higher than the combined $1.048 million the nonprofit paid to purchase six retail units and two storage rooms in stages, according to deeds:

• January 1995, two retail units and a storage room, $785,000.

• May 1995, one retail unit, $73,750.

• July 2002, three retail units and a storage room, $190,000.

The 1995 purchases were from the Wilkes-Barre Industrial Development Authority and City Heights Residential Development Co., which developed the property in the 1970s. The 2002 acquisition was from Penn’s Woods Girl Scout Council Inc., which is no longer in the building.

Alu said he is working with the mapping department to research the issue and has assigned an evaluator to determine if all units have been picked up by the county.

It’s unclear why the discrepancies were not detected through multiple deed filings, a countywide reassessment and an assessment challenge by CEO.

The property was originally valued at $1.48 million during the reassessment in 2008 and was reduced to $1.08 million after an appeal later that year, records show.

Alu said the original transactions preceded his hiring as assessment office overseer in 2001, but he promised to rectify the matter to ensure the correct owners are taxed the proper amount.

“This is a puzzle, and we will put it together,” Alu said.

Times Leader staff writer Andrew M. Seder contributed to this report.

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