WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County’s 69 elected tax collectors on Friday filed a lawsuit against Luzerne County in an effort to prevent their positions from being abolished next year.
Plaintiffs in the suit are the Luzerne County Tax Collectors Association represented by the organization’s trustees ad litem Mildred Luba, Leonard Kozick and Jacqueline Latosek — the tax collectors for the townships of Hanover, Dallas and Jackson, respectively; Jean Mudlock and Dominick Panetta, tax collectors for Jenkins Township and Sugar Notch; and Hanover Township Commissioners Russell Davis, Michael Mazur and Jeffrey Lewis.
The lawsuit, filed in Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas, states that the Luzerne County Council passed an ordinance on Feb. 12 stating that the county Budget and Finance Office shall assume the duties of billing and collecting county (real estate) taxes as of Jan. 1, 2014.
Six of the 11 county council members supported the change, citing a projected $258,555 in annual savings from in-house collection.
The elected collectors are paid $3.50 for both paid and unpaid county tax bills. They offered to accept $2.75 for paid and $1 for unpaid, with a 25-cent bonus for each paid bill if a collector exceeds the prior three-year collection rates. The estimated savings for that option: up to $125,000.
Council members also had proposed keeping elected collectors and reducing their stipends to $2 for paid and $1 or nothing for unpaid bills. Council didn’t vote on those proposals because in-house collection was first on the agenda and passed.
But according to the lawsuit, the tax collectors contend that the ordinance abolishing their positions is invalid because it violates the state’s Local Tax Collection Law, which the suit calls “a statute of uniform, statewide applicability.”
In addition, the ordinance is not authorized by the county’s Home Rule Charter and actually violates the charter in that it attempts to exercise powers not granted to the county under state law, the suit states. The tax collectors also claim that the ordinance conflicts with powers granted to municipalities and local tax collectors under borough code and township codes.
The suit also requests that the court grant a permanent injunction as well as a preliminary injunction that would suspend enactment of the ordinance until all issues raised in the lawsuit are addressed by the court.
That issue might have to be decided soon, as all 69 tax collector posts are on this year’s election ballots.
County Councilman Eugene Kelleher has said he believes a recent assertion made by attorney Jim Haggerty, a home rule charter drafter, that council has authority to stop using elected collectors.
Before home rule was adopted, charter drafters had said they purposefully kept tax collectors out of the charter because they did not want any change in their current roles.
However, county solicitor Vito DeLuca said tax collector inclusion in the charter was the only way to guarantee future council members would continue using their services.