Luzerne County’s inventory of unsold back-tax properties continues to grow to new highs, with the latest report listing around 875 parcels.
The county’s tax claim repository already was significantly larger than all 11 other similarly sized counties in Pennsylvania a year ago when it contained around 750 properties, a survey showed.
Growth is a concern because the county is somewhat liable for repository properties while the owners of record have abandoned them and stopped paying real estate taxes, said John Rodgers, head of Luzerne County’s tax claim operator, Northeast Revenue Service LLC.
County Council’s real estate committee plans to discuss repository properties as part of an initiative to return properties to the tax rolls, including unused county-owned property.
Rodgers recently told council members he has been trying to step up marketing of repository properties to get them into the hands of new owners.
About 60 to 70 repository properties are sold annually.
However, these gains are more than wiped out by the company’s aggressive push to bring all eligible delinquent properties to auction because each sale results in additional unsold leftover properties landing in the repository.
In an attempt to solicit help from taxing bodies hurt by the repository growth, Rodgers plans to send another letter to municipal officials asking them to consider assuming ownership or finding buyers for repository properties in their areas.
Only two municipalities responded to his request for assistance last year, he said.
“I thought we’d get more interest. We will give these properties to municipalities for $1, and they can get a grant to rip them down and then sell them to adjacent property owners,” Rodgers said.
He also told county officials he has been approaching mobile home park owners who may be interested in buying the up to 200 trailers in the repository as a package.
Luzerne County officials chose to start repository bids at $500, though they have the option to accept less. Back taxes are forgiven because the properties didn’t sell at previous auctions. Bids may be submitted at any time to the tax claim office and must be accepted by all three taxing bodies.
The repository also contains hundreds of land slivers that are landlocked or too small to fit a structure, a few buildings that are likely contaminated and stormwater systems, private roads and other project scraps left by developers after the rest of their projects were completed.
The former Valley View Wood Distributors Inc. site on Cherry Road in Nescopeck Township is an example of a property that’s languished for years in the repository.
The vacant commercial building on 70.4 acres has accrued more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes dating back to 1993. Environmental issues may discourage buyers, Northeast Revenue representatives say.
Rodgers said he’s considering retaining a consultant to complete basic environmental reports on this and other properties that will outline what clean-up would be required for reuse.
He also encourages municipalities to consider land banks. State law now permits creation of special authorities to take over blighted properties and make them more attractive to investors, though start-up funding must be identified.
Another newer law targeting slumlords may discourage the owners of multiple properties from allowing their less valuable holdings to land in the repository in the future, Rodgers said.
This law, Act 93 of 2013, automatically attaches back-tax liens on one property to all other properties owned by the same person or company within the county, Rodgers said.
This will force owners to pay back taxes on all of their properties if they want to sell or refinance one of them, he said. Payment would be necessary because a property title free of claims and liens is required in typical real estate transactions.
Liens will remain connected to all of an owner’s properties until taxes are paid or the delinquent property is sold by tax claim — including properties in the repository, he said.