A group of elected Luzerne County tax collectors walked out of Tuesday’s County Council meeting en masse when council canceled a vote on a plan that would restore their services.
But council Chairman Rick Morelli said after the meeting a change from in-house collection back to elected collectors is still not “off the table.”
“I want the public to know the issue is not dead just because it was taken off the agenda,” Morelli said.
Council was slated to vote on repealing an ordinance assigning the collection of county taxes to the Treasurer’s Office, but Chief County Solicitor C. David Pedri advised council at the meeting to stop that vote.
Morelli and other council members said they can’t discuss what was said about the matter in a closed-door executive session before the meeting, when Pedri briefed council on an offer from the county’s 69 elected collectors to drop a court appeal over their elimination in exchange for keeping them at a reduced rate.
“It’s in the hands of the executive branch to negotiate,” Morelli said.
Council must reach a decision within the next two weeks because delays would force the county to wait longer to collect property taxes, the county’s largest revenue source, Morelli said.
Morelli and four other sitting council members had opposed the February 2013 council decision to convert to in-house collection. New council members Kathy Dobash and Eileen Sorokas have said they support switching back to tax collectors, which would ensure a majority vote on the 11-person council.
Supporters of in-house collection say it will save the county at least $240,000 annually and generate $78,500 in new revenue.
The elected collectors received $3.50 for both paid and unpaid county tax bills but were willing to accept pay cuts, saving an estimated $125,000.
Insiders say council members would have lost their bargaining chip to negotiate further reductions with elected collectors if they had voted Tuesday to halt in-house collection without a final settlement with elected collectors in hand.
Meanwhile, the Treasurer’s Office is proceeding with plans to start handling the duty and has posted an advertisement on the county website (www.luzernecounty.org) seeking two new employees to assist with tax collection. Office representatives insist they are equipped to handle the increased duties, but some council members are skeptical and concerned about the loss of collectors who reside in communities they serve.
Several citizens criticized the potential change back to elected collectors during Tuesday’s meeting.
Former county controller Walter Griffith said in-house collection would ensure receipts are immediately deposited, and he said procedural delays associated with a change in plans will hurt the county’s cash flow.
“I think it’s a dangerous situation to repeal that ordinance,” Griffith said.
Taxpayer Ed Chesnovitch questioned the move to settle, saying elected collectors lost in court when they argued the change to in-house collection wasn’t permitted under home rule. He advised council to give the Treasurer’s Office the chance to handle collection.
Kingston resident Brian Shiner said going back to elected collectors would be “a big mistake.” Last year’s election of tax collectors was based on the understanding they would no longer be paid to collect county taxes, and a reversal would be unfair to people who decided not to run for the post for that reason, he said.
Council also failed to vote Tuesday to reopen the 2014 budget after Pedri disclosed an ordinance would be required, which wasn’t prepared for the meeting. Dobash, Sorokas and four other council members have expressed interest in taking another look at the budget, which calls for an 8-percent tax hike. Morelli is among the six but has stressed he does not expect significant changes will be made in the budget before the Feb. 15 amendment deadline.
Veteran county road and bridge worker John Pickering told council many employees have the perception a new informal council coalition will cut the tax hike to 4 percent. The resulting additional layoffs would jeopardize the plowing and maintenance of county roads and other services, he said.
The department was unable to meet past plowing performance during a recent storm due to several staff cuts tied to the 2014 budget, he said.
In other business Tuesday, Pringle resident Christine Dixon urged council to consider changing zoning regulations that prohibit her from keeping three chickens in an enclosed backyard area. Pringle is among municipalities that rely on the county for zoning.
Dixon said the keeping of chickens has become more popular and is endorsed in some countries. She said she supports regulations but not an outright ban.
Duryea resident Jeanette Volch also spoke in support of allowing chickens in residential areas, saying pitbulls are running around neighborhoods.
“I don’t hear of anybody being attacked by chickens,” Volch said.
Morelli said council will address the issue.