Last updated: April 03. 2014 11:10PM - 1768 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com

A portion of the Wyoming Valley Levee and flood wall is seen in Forty Fort.
A portion of the Wyoming Valley Levee and flood wall is seen in Forty Fort.
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Liens won’t be filed this week as planned against Wyoming Valley Levee fee payers marked as delinquent in 2010 and 2011.

Officials opted to hold off because numerous property owners say they already paid but need more time to dig through old records to prove it, said Sean Shamany, a representative of Northeast Revenue Service LLC, which handles the fee collection.

Lien notices were sent to 3,811 property owners several weeks ago, though Northeast Revenue warned the mailing may include property owners who paid. Northeast Revenue and the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority levying the fee are in a bind because they received shoddy records from those two years from the prior fee collector, the Don Wilkinson Agency.

“It’s taking people longer to round up old bank statements, and we want to give them the benefit of doubt and extra time to prove they paid,” Shamany said.

Authority Executive Director Chris Belleman said he has not determined how much additional time will be granted. The liens must be filed at some point to be fair to those who paid, he said.

As a compromise, the authority is waiving penalties except a $20 fee charged by Northeast Revenue, Belleman said.

“I want to make this as pain-free as possible,” he said.

Liens remain with a property until the debt is paid and can lower the credit ratings of impacted property owners. Delinquencies from 2012 were included in the recent certified lien notice mailing, but Northeast Revenue is confident records from that year are accurate because the company was on board at that time.

Belleman also said he is launching a campaign to educate the public about the levee fee because he continues encountering citizens who don’t understand it.

Part of the lack of awareness stems from roughly 1,000 properties changing hands within the levee fee zone annually, he said.

The fee must be paid on 14,200 properties in low-lying, levee-protected areas and ranges from $46.85 to $93.70 for residential properties and $93.70 to $676.44 for commercial, industrial and tax-exempt properties.

The fee was implemented in 2009 to fund levee maintenance tied to flood control, removing the expense from the county’s strapped general fund operating budget. The fee generates about $1.1 million annually.

Levee fee bills for 2014 will be mailed in September.

About $900,000 in levee fee revenue was spent on insurance, supplies, equipment and staff to maintain the levee, though none went to recreational components of the flood control system, he said. Expenses will be higher in years of Susquehanna River flooding, he said.

The authority has $1.68 million in fee receipts in the bank to cover expenses and create a reserve to cover capital repairs required to keep the levee certified, he said.

For example, an estimated $145,000 will be spent this year complying with a federal requirement to inspect all pipes that penetrate the levee system, he said.

The fee is based on a survey of properties that flooded in 1972, but Belleman said property owners are free to submit photographs and other documentation from 1972 contesting their properties’ inclusion in the fee zone. Nearly 400 properties have been removed from the fee zone to date.

“We will give all property owners fair due process,” he said. “I am concerned about getting the database as accurate as possible.”

A report on frequently asked questions will be posted on the county website (www.luzernecounty.org) and included with 2014 bills, he said.

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