Thursday, July 10, 2014

County gets ready for in-house tax collection

December 09. 2013 11:53PM

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Luzerne County government is weeks away from a landmark change, assuming sole responsibility for collecting its own taxes and ending its long-standing reliance on elected collectors.

County Treasurer’s Office Manager/Tax Administrator Laura Beers said her office is finalizing preparations for the switch. Jan. 21 is the target date to mail 2014 county tax bills.

“We have a big task ahead of us, but I’m confident everything’s coming together. We’re looking forward to saving the taxpayers of Luzerne County a lot of money,” Beers said.

Beers has conservatively estimated annual net savings at $240,000, largely from ending payments to 69 elected collectors who receive $3.50 per bill. The county’s switch to in-house collection has no bearing on the elected collectors’ involvement in accepting school and municipal taxes.

The treasurer’s office soon will advertise three new positions to handle collection, Beers said. County Manager Robert Lawton said these hirings won’t be impacted by potential 2014 budget-related layoffs because they are essential to bring in revenue owed to the county. Lawton factored the $240,000 savings in the 2014 budget contingency fund.

The county treasurer’s office already handles the collection of 22,500 county tax bills in Pittston, Nanticoke and Wilkes-Barre, which did not have elected collectors, and another 135,000 bills will be added to the mix next year, Beers said.

However, Beers said major mortgage companies are expected to pay 28,000 of the 157,500 bills through wire transfers on behalf of property owners with taxes lumped into their mortgage payments. These mortgage companies will access an electronic file of payments owed by clients so the treasurer’s office won’t have to invest time preparing and mailing these bills, she said.

During the first four months of collection, the treasurer’s office will have Wednesday evening and Saturday collection hours in addition to a standard 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekday schedule, Beers said.

Property owners have two months after bills are issued to pay at a 2-percent discount and another two months to pay at the full price before a 10-percent penalty is added.

The three new staffers must agree to work nights and weekends and won’t receive overtime for these hours, she said.

A secure drop-off box also will be set up at the county’s Penn Place building on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Market Street in downtown Wilkes-Barre. The treasurer’s office is setting up a system to allow online payments with a credit or debit card or electronic check, with fees that have not yet been set.

Proposals are due today from companies interested in printing property tax bills. The county included municipal bills in this bidding request to pass on the bulk-award printing savings to municipalities, Beers said.

The county previously printed both county and municipal bills in-house at a cost of 69 cents per bill, but county officials believe outsourcing will reduce the expense.

County and municipal tax bills will be mailed separately in January to avoid confusion, Beers said.

County officials say they were able to stop using elected collectors under the county’s new home rule government, and a judge affirmed that opinion. Elected tax collectors have appealed that ruling.

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