Last updated: February 20. 2013 2:44AM - 870 Views

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Luzerne County's 69 elected tax collectors say county officials would be foolish to cut them out or reduce their $3.50-per-bill pay because they provide top-notch service without the added costs of overhead, health insurance or other benefits.

But county Manager Robert Lawton said the county would save an estimated $258,555 and generate $130,000 in additional revenue if it stops using elected collectors and assigns county property tax collection to the county treasurer's office.

While that's Lawton's preferred move, he also proposes alternatives of lowering the per-bill compensation for elected tax collectors and no longer paying them $3.50 for each bill that goes unpaid, according to a document he posted on the county's website Friday.

The 11-member County Council will sort through the opposing arguments Tuesday. Council must make a decision on any changes involving tax collectors by Feb. 15 because tax collector seats are on the ballot this year. Any changes would apply to tax collectors who take office in 2014 and have no bearing on the collection of school and municipal property taxes.

The potential for litigation also is an issue. The tax collectors point to a court ruling that forced a school district to restore the pay of elected tax collectors after it had been reduced 70 percent. They also question council's authority to stop using their services, because the county's home rule charter did not state they must or could be eliminated.

County officials have not publicly released their legal opinion on the issue.

Several tax collectors gathered at an area restaurant recently to discuss the benefits of their service and frustration that council hasn't scheduled a special meeting or work session to obtain their input.

Issue of much debate

The pros and cons of tax collection options were discussed during a council meeting in August. Council Chairman Tim McGinley said tax collectors are free to comment during Tuesday's meeting.

Hanover Township tax collector Mildred Luba said home rule charter drafters told tax collectors they kept their posts out of the charter because they did not want to stop using them for county tax collection. And here we are, still fighting, she said, noting she has petitions signed by thousands of constituents who want to keep tax collectors. It's a constant stress because we know the work we do.

The county spends $409,119 annually on elected tax collectors.

Luba's husband, Len, said the elected tax collectors have an average collection rate of 93 percent, compared to a 90 percent rate in the three cities where collection is handled by the county.

County collection by the treasurer's office would allow people to pay their bills during weekday business hours, with the added option to use credit and debit cards online or by phone, Lawton's proposal says.

Mortgage companies also could pay electronically on behalf of their clients who have escrow accounts, the county said.

Convenience touted

But the group of 10 tax collectors agreed collection is boosted by the ability for property owners to pay taxes in their own neighborhood, with the added convenience of weekend and evening hours offered by elected collectors.

They describe instances in which they've accepted taxes at church, sporting events and grocery stores outside office hours, and some collectors visit homebound elderly or disabled property owners to collect.

Jackson Township tax collector Jackie Latosek said she waited on customers many times in her pajamas because they were ready and willing to pay in off-hours.

I was in the yard barbequing on the Fourth of July, and someone came up and asked if they could pay, said Newport Township tax collector Kenneth E. Angradi.

Hazle Township tax collector Mike DeCosmo said at least a third of his property owners want to pay their taxes in person, and he doesn't believe residents in southern Luzerne County should be forced to drive to Wilkes-Barre. The county would increase costs opening up a satellite office, he said.

The tax collectors said elderly property owners routinely pay their taxes with cash because they don't have checking accounts, with DeCosmo estimating about 10 percent fall in that category.

Hunlock Township tax collector JoAnn Blaine said one customer paid with $600 in rolled change.

Tax collectors also say they provide extra copies of payment receipts at no charge to property owners and help property owners fill out rent/tax rebate forms. They caution the county will add fees for some of the services they provide for free.

I've seen no independent verification where this could be done more efficiently or cost-effectively another way, DeCosmo said.

What's next

Luzerne County tax collection is among the topics that will be discussed at Tuesday's county council meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. in the county's Emergency Management Agency building, Water Street, Wilkes-Barre.

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