Last updated: February 12. 2014 10:37PM - 3082 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com

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Hazleton resident Dee Deakos said she wants to be paid for finding a commercial building that’s not on Luzerne County’s tax rolls.

She told county council members this week she had reported several other missed properties to the county assessor’s office in recent years without expecting compensation but decided pay is warranted for her latest discovery because she’s helping the county boost its stagnant tax base.

Deakos pitched a proposal to be paid a commission for detecting missed properties during council’s economic development/real estate committee meeting Tuesday.

County Manager Robert Lawton said the idea has merit, though the county must publicly advertise the work opportunity to see if others are interested and compare fees. Lawton said he will instruct the purchasing office to prepare a request for proposals.

Deakos proposed a one-time fee amounting to half of any additional county property tax collected on structures or expansions added to the tax rolls as a result of her information. The tax payments would be based on increased assessments calculated by the county assessor’s office, she said.

For example, Deakos would receive $50 if the county tax bill increases from $200 to $300 on a missed property she identifies. The fee would not impact the budget because it comes from unanticipated revenue, and the county would receive all additional tax receipts after the first year, she said.

“If I find nothing, I receive nothing,” said Deakos. “What does the county have to lose?”

Deakos, who has a master’s degree in computer science and closely monitors real estate activity, conducted a similar missed property detection service for the Hazleton Area School District more than a decade ago. She found at least eight overlooked structures or additions in the district that were added to the tax rolls in 2003.

She stopped the consulting work when the county launched a reassessment of all properties because the revaluation, which took effect in 2009, was expected to detect anywhere from hundreds to more than a thousand missed structures and additions. A final tally of missed properties uncovered by the reassessment was never released, but Deakos told council some are still escaping taxation.

County Assessment Director Tony Alu, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting, said his office welcomes any information on missed properties, though 90 percent of the reports to his office don’t result in additions to the tax rolls.

Some tipsters don’t search under the correct parcel or name and wrongly conclude someone is not taxed, Alu said. Some properties also have no assessment listed because they are part of a combined value for multiple structures located on one parcel, he said.

“I love tips. I believe it’s every citizen’s responsibility to let us know if something is not right,” Alu said.

The assessor’s office relies primarily on building permits to pinpoint new construction, he said. The county may explore fines against property owners who don’t obtain required permits as a way to pay a consultant instead of giving up tax revenue, Alu said.

“We’re trying to do the best we can picking up additions with the staff we have,” said Alu, who has expressed concerns about the impact of several rounds of layoffs and budget cuts in his office.

Two missed properties have received media attention in recent years. A Pittston commercial building owned by John and Angela Cooper was removed from the tax rolls during the reassessment, and Alu put it back on the tax rolls as soon as he learned about the error in March 2012. Alu also discovered a coding error that caused the privately-owned Courthouse Towers building on North River Street in Wilkes-Barre to be incorrectly labeled as tax-exempt from 2006 through 2009.

Deakos said the untaxed commercial structure she identified is in the Hazleton area but declined to release details, saying she will provide the information to the county if she is hired. The land is assessed and taxed, but the structure was removed for unknown reasons several years ago, she said. Deakos said she visited the property and took a photograph as evidence the structure is there and would do the same if she finds other suspected missed properties before she reports them to the county.

Kingston resident Brian Shiner questioned the committee about the status of an aerial flyover expected to help the county flag new structures and additions.

The flyover, estimated at $100,000, was funded by the Eastern Central Pennsylvania Regional Task Force, which focuses on hazard planning and response.

“I think that would be a very good way to start instead of spending money to have other people find it for us,” Shiner said.

County Mapping/GIS Director David Skoronski said the county is using the new flyover images from last spring, but Alu and Skoronski said the county would have to hire an outside company to plot the footprint of every structure countywide and provide software designed to highlight property additions using flyover images.

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