Luzerne County sending bills to recipients of incorrect homestead tax break

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected] | July 27th, 2016 5:51 pm

A controversy that erupted more than a year ago over homestead tax breaks wrongly granted to some Luzerne County property owners is nearing resolution as the county prepares to send bills seeking repayment of incorrect breaks from the owners of 1,400 properties.

The target bill mailing date is Aug. 11, county Manager C. David Pedri said Wednesday

A conversation during a March 2015 council meeting revealed former county controller Walter Griffith had received the break on two homes and an auto repair business he owns.

Only one owner-occupied primary residence per property owner can receive the homestead discount on real estate taxes.

Griffith said he was unaware of the problem and discovered in his own research that county council members Eileen Sorokas and Harry Haas also received breaks on more than one property. Both council members also denied knowledge of the incorrect breaks and pushed for a countywide review identifying all errors.

The controller’s office generated a list of suspected errors for the county assessor’s office, which started combing through property records last July to weed out those who owed the county money.

Participants saved $45 to $57 on their county real estate taxes annually from 2009 until the county-funded break was halted in 2015.

The maximum repayment will be around $300 for properties that incorrectly received the break all six years, county officials said.

Pedri said the average bill is around $200. He told the county council Tuesday he expects a return “in the six figures.”

The bills will specify dates allowing owners to pay at a discounted amount and then full amount before penalties will be added, Pedri said, similar to the protocol for real estate taxes.

A document also will be attached explaining the challenge process for property owners who dispute their inclusion in the mailing, he said.

Instead of covering ongoing operating expenses, revenue from repayments will be placed in a reserve to help reduce the county’s $9.4 million deficit, he said.

Property owners continue to receive gambling-funded school tax breaks based on the homestead applications accepted by the county assessor’s office.

Pedri said a high-level assessor’s clerk now reviews all new homestead requests, and the county has asked tax collectors and school district business managers to monitor recipients in their jurisdictions and report potential violations.

The Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. Pete G. Wilcox | Times Leader file photo

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.