Sharon Wildoner approached Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Vough in her wheelchair Wednesday morning, begging him to remove her two properties from the next day’s back-tax auction.
“Please don’t take my property,” she pleaded.
“Ma’am, I’m not taking your property. I’m following the law,” Vough said.
Vough spent three hours Wednesday hearing 28 requests for properties to be pulled from the sale.
Several appeared in court with the aid of canes or walkers. Many filed impassioned paperwork detailing medical conditions, relationship struggles and financial difficulties.
Attorney Sam Falcone, who represents the county tax claim office operated by Northeast Revenue Service LLC, presented arguments against granting many of the requests, including instances in which property owners have defaulted on past agreements with the office to repay their debt in installments.
Falcone said the problems cited by many property owners are often heartbreaking, but many other property owners wrestling with their own struggles are still managing to pay. Granting unwarranted breaks would open the door for others to seek the same, he said.
“It’s a Pandora’s box,” he said.
Tax auction rules
Properties must go to auction if taxes are unpaid for two years. Property owners can get out of the sale by filing for bankruptcy, obtaining court removal, entering into payment plans or paying all taxes owed from 2011 and prior years.
Payment plan defaulters aren’t eligible to participate in another payment plan for three years, and the law requires 25 percent down with the remainder paid off within a year for those who enter such agreements.
Thirteen of the 28 property owners seeking sale removal Wednesday had defaulted repayment plans, including Wildoner.
Vough told Wildoner it’s unlikely her two properties in Hunlock Township and Plymouth will sell in today’s sale because she has outstanding mortgages that become the responsibility of bidders.
Properties that don’t sell in the first-stage auction will advance to a free-and-clear sale next summer, when all back taxes and liens are forgiven. Lenders usually pay the back taxes before properties get to the final sale to protect their interest.
Nicholai Cinchock’s request was among 10 denied by Vough Wednesday.
Cinchock’s court filing said he was unemployed until June 2012, had medical issues and was the victim of a hit-and-run driver.
“I’ve been gainfully employed for the past 16 months, but catching up on bills was difficult,” wrote Cinchock, who, like many, represented himself instead of retaining legal counsel.
Falcone pointed out Cinchock’s past repayment agreement default on his Hanover Township property, and Vough asked Cinchock what he plans to do about the situation.
“I’d love to rectify it,” Cinchock said.
Vough asked how much Cinchock can pay, and he said nothing.
Among the other sale removal denials:
• Fellipe Luciano, who owns a property in Wilkes-Barre and also defaulted on a past repayment agreement. He referred to medical problems in his filing and said he is seeking a second job.
• Maureen Storz, owner of a Kingston property, who told the judge she lost her job. Her court filing also detailed medical issues and said her car was totalled while parked in front of her house in January 2012. However, she defaulted on a past payment plan and told the judge she was unable to pay anything toward the debt at this moment.
• Barbara Bitzer, a 71-year-old widow who owns two properties in Wilkes-Barre and defaulted on a repayment plan. Bitzer would have to come up with $6,000 owed through 2011 to get out of the sale.
• Geraldine Jusinski, who owns a property in Nanticoke and Hunlock Township and defaulted on a payment plan. Her filing cited expensive medical treatments for a family member and said a collection taken by some people to help the family won’t cover the taxes.
“Please help me find absolution,” her filing said.
Though there are no guarantees, Vough said her mortgage may make her properties unattractive to bidders in the first-stage auction.
• Hazleton resident James Petrilli unsuccessfully tried to buy more time to pay taxes on his funeral homes in Freeland and Hazleton.
Petrilli’s court filing, prepared by attorney Michael Senape, says Petrilli has been unable to pay a combined $5,049 in 2011 taxes on both properties because the reconstruction of Broad Street in Hazleton, which began in 2011 and is still ongoing, has severely harmed his Hazleton funeral business that provides the majority of his income.
The filing cites a decrease in funeral services from nine in 2011 to five in 2012 and one in 2013.
Vough said Petrilli is eligible for a payment plan and advised him to come up with the 25 percent downpayment.
Petrilli said he doesn’t have the money.
“I always paid on time. This is devastating to me,” Petrilli said. “Please just give me some time.”
Vough said many property owners are in the same boat, and he prides himself on treating everyone equally.
“Most people in this economy have problems, but my job is to follow the law,” the judge said.
Vough postponed 16 of the auction listings until Nov. 14 because the property owners are trying to sell their properties, are eligible for repayment installment plans or have other pending issues.
Linda Evans, who owns two properties in Kingston, agreed to get on a payment plan before Nov. 14. Her filing said she is a single mother of a child with special needs and had to replace her furnace.
Michael Yankovich, who recently returned to work after an injury, said he will get on a payment plan or pay his taxes if the mortgage application on his Dallas property is approved, but he plans to put his home on the market if the loan falls through.
The sister of one deceased property owner was in the process of obtaining her brother’s death certificate from Mexico so she can proceed with estate filings to gain control of the property. Another woman submitted evidence the government is processing her request for veteran’s benefits, and a man said he is expecting a child-support payment from his estranged wife. Another property was tied up in a subdivision while one of the owners was hospitalized.
Vough made it clear to most of these property owners they won’t receive a second chance if they haven’t resolved their pending debt before the Nov. 14 sale.
Another property required no action by Vough because the property owners brought their payment to the courthouse Wednesday.
West Pittston property owners David and Tracy Fritz were removed from the sale and received a nine-month reprieve from auction listing because their Philadelphia Avenue property sustained heavy damage from record flooding in 2011, and the couple had no flood insurance.
Tracy Fritz said in her court filing that she lost all belongings in the flood and is working at a business also impacted by flooding. Her husband also was laid off after 25 years at his company, she wrote.
Vough advised Fritz to appeal her assessment and said her sale removal was warranted because the flood was a natural disaster out of her control.