At first blush it seems like good news. As Jennifer Learn-Andes reported in Thursday’s paper, Luzerne County saw an increase in taxable properties the first half of this year, up by $33 million.
It’s particularly upbeat news for a slim slice of municipalities. Laurel Run got the biggest boost, percentage-wise, seeing its tax base jump by nearly 11 percent, from $24.1 million to $26.7 million. Nanticoke got a smaller but still impressive boost of almost 3.5 percent, from $359 million to $371.5 million.
So, why does this feel like nothing much to celebrate?
Doubtless part of the reason is the fragile nature of the apparent hike. Combined, Laurel Run and Nanticoke make up nearly half of the county’s taxable property gains. Yet their increases did not come from new construction, but from the sale of property that had been owned by nonprofits and thus had been tax-exempt.
That kind of taxable property increase can be ephemeral if the new owners challenge the assessed value, as already is the case in Nanticoke. The sale of the former Nanticoke State Hospital, assessed at about $12.5 million, accounted for almost all of its increase. The new owner has appealed that assessment.
There is , however, a deeper and more systemic issue at work here: We have too many municipalities.
The county is carved up into 76 fiefdoms, the governments of each competing against the other.
Hazle Township and Hazleton city are illustrative. The city has close to 25,000 people, the township has fewer than 10,000. Yet Hazle Township has long been one of the county’s fastest growing municipalities. In 2016, it surpassed Wilkes-Barre — the county seat, with four times the population — in total property value. And Hazle Township has been adding to the lead ever since, increasing values by $783,000 from January to June, falling just shy of $1.5 billion, with a “b.”
Despite the fact that Hazleton is surrounded by booming Hazle Township, the city barely saw taxable property increase by $85,600. And here’s the rub. Cities like Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton chronically struggle to generate enough tax money to adequately man police and fire departments while Hazle Township continues to rely on state police overage.
The obvious solution is municipal mergers, but that’s a heavy lift. Places seeing big growth that helps avoid big tax increases are understandably unwilling to give up their gains to help neighbors who may be struggling.
That attitude is short-sighted. However unpopular, municipal mergers should be put squarely on the table and given serious consideration. Failing that, all municipal officials in our 76 townships, boroughs and cities should be openly and eagerly looking for opportunities to cooperate.
We would grow more quickly as a county if we worked together on growing. Doing what’s best for your little jurisdiction is not always the same as doing what’s best for its people.
– Times Leader