The out-of-state owners of a half-acre wooded lot near White Haven stopped paying property taxes 16 years ago.
Luzerne County’s tax claim office unsuccessfully tried to unload the lot years ago for a few hundred dollars at a back-tax auction.
Assessed at $7,000, the lot has been for sale since then, with back taxes forgiven, to anyone willing to shell out the minimum bid of $500, but no takers have surfaced.
Taxing bodies lost $19,402 in property taxes on the parcel to date and will receive nothing unless the property is sold.
The lot is among 755 county properties trapped in a black hole known as the tax claim “repository.” These properties, which failed to sell at past auctions, have a combined assessment of $16.5 million, according to an assessor’s office review last month.
Luzerne County has accumulated a higher number of repository properties than other, similarly sized counties in the state, according to a Times Leader analysis.
The county’s repository is at least twice the size of those in 10 of the 11 other third-class counties. Westmoreland County’s repository is the only one that comes close, with about 500 properties stuck in the pool.
Six of these counties have fewer than 100 repository properties.
John Rodgers, head of Luzerne County’s tax claim operator – Northeast Revenue Service LLC – attributes the size of the county’s repository on the inventory and a need to step up marketing.
The pool contains about 200 mobile homes, hundreds of land slivers that are landlocked or too small to fit a structure, a few buildings that are likely contaminated and stormwater systems, private roads and other project scraps left by developers after the rest of their projects were completed.
Northeast Revenue has been keeping detention basins and contaminated properties out of final-stage auctions so they don’t land in the repository, but Rodgers said he can’t undo ones added to the repository in the past.
While repository properties stay in the owners’ names until they are sold, the county is somewhat liable because the owners have walked away, Rodgers said.
Most of Northeast Revenue’s efforts to date have been on stopping further growth of the repository inventory. The company sold 61 repository properties in 2011 and 73 in 2012, Rodgers said.
However, reductions are offset by new properties added to the pool through the company’s aggressive push to bring all eligible delinquent properties to auction, he said.
Rodgers recently assigned an employee to evaluate each of the properties – with the goal of attracting buyers. “We’re pushing hard to bring the county’s repository count down,” he said.
Luzerne County officials chose to start repository bids at $500, and offers must be accepted by all three taxing bodies. Back taxes are forgiven, and bids may be submitted at any time to the tax claim office on the first floor of the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.
The properties are supposed to be free-and-clear of liens, though the burden falls on buyers to accept the liability and legal work needed to clean the property titles.
Rodgers said many repository properties have potential.
There’s a single-family home, for instance, in the 500 block of Swallow Street in Edwardsville that’s assessed at $59,100.
Rodgers points to a 61-acre vacant tract in a higher-end residential development off Rock Glen Road in Sugarloaf Township. The buyer would be stuck with a stormwater runoff basin on part of the property, but the parcel includes acres of developable land, he said.
Rodgers said his staff will check the 200 or so mobile homes to verify they haven’t been removed. Most are on rented space in mobile parks, which means land wouldn’t come with the structure. Once an accurate inventory of mobile homes is compiled, Northeast Revenue will contact mobile home park owners and others to see if they’re interested in buying them, he said.
Officials in the 76 municipalities also will be asked to help tax claim market repository parcels to adjacent property owners, Rodgers said.
County Chief Engineer Joe Gibbons also has publicly discussed the administration’s interest in a plan to sell unneeded county property, including the privately owned repository properties.
Northampton County has unloaded some of its tiny repository land scraps by offering them to adjacent property owners for $1, said county revenue division employee Gail Sanders.
Erie County has a minimum bid of $250 for repository properties but has struggled to get bites on the small land strips, said Tax Claim Manager Steve Letzelter. The county has 273 repository properties, including some that have been in the pool since the 1970s.
Counties don’t have the resources to clean up property titles, he said. “It often requires a lot of legal work for the new owners, so some are hesitant to step in,” Letzelter said.
Tax-delinquent mobile homes also “have a habit of disappearing in the middle of the night,” which might put off potential buyers who are unsure if there’s an actual structure left when they bid, he said.
Berks County Tax Claim Director Stacy Phile said the county’s community development office has been visiting property owners to show them nearby available repository parcels to drum up interest. Phile, who oversees a 130-property repository pool, also requested aid from Reading city community development officials.
The Berks assessor’s office also keeps tabs on repository mobile homes to make sure they haven’t disappeared, which would warrant their removal from the tax rolls, she said.
Chester County’s tax claim office sends letters to municipalities urging them to market repository properties, and sometimes municipalities opt to assume ownership, said the county’s judicial sales coordinator Patricia Guy, who oversees 43 repository properties.
Dauphin County, which has 320 repository properties largely concentrated in Harrisburg, held a special mass repository auction about two years ago and notified adjacent parcel owners to generate more interest, said Holly Martz, tax claim bureau deputy director. Another auction will be held soon, she said.
Ronald Koldjeski, deputy tax claim director in neighboring Lackawanna County, keeps the estimated 200 mobile homes that didn’t sell at auction in a separate pool and publicizes their availability for $500 each.
Lackawanna County has 158 properties in its repository in addition to the mobile homes.
Returning properties to the tax rolls should be a priority, Koldjeski said. “If it’s sitting there as a nonproducing asset, it’s not doing us any good,” he said. “It’s not doing anybody good.”
Lancaster County Treasurer Craig Ebersole said his county is fortunate, with only six repository properties. The pool hasn’t exceeded 40 in the past decade, he said.