Last updated: May 26. 2014 11:17PM - 2827 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

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A Luzerne County Council committee has finalized four proposed modifications to the home rule charter that will be on the November ballot if a council majority approves them.

State law allows some minor charter tweaking, though the government structure can’t be significantly altered until the charter completes its five-year anniversary in January 2017, county officials say.

The proposed changes deal with tax collection, budget amendments, restrictions for citizens serving on county boards and authorities, and the composition of the ethics commission and election board.

The tax collection amendment would force the county to seek proposals from entities interested in collecting county real estate taxes and require council to approve a contract with the lowest responsible bidder.

A new collector could not be retained until 2018 because the county is locked into an agreement with elected collectors through the end of their terms in 2017, said Councilman Jim Bobeck, who serves on the charter revision committee along with Rick Williams and Linda McClosky Houck.

Bobeck said he suggested the amendment believing voters should weigh in on tax collection, which is not addressed in the charter.

A council majority had voted in 2013 to switch to in-house collection by the Treasurer’s Office, but two new council members provided the votes needed in January to reverse that decision and return to elected collectors at reduced compensation.

“Council went in two directions, so now in the end we want voters to have the choice how we go about determining our tax collection in the future,” said Bobeck.

Although the proposal uses the word “responsible” with the low bidder that must be retained by the county for tax collection, former county controller Walter Griffith told the committee last week he’s concerned the county could get stuck relying on a company that doesn’t perform as expected. He pointed to government agencies left in limbo when the Don Wilkinson Agency collection company went out of business.

Griffith suggested a different change requiring the county to convert to in-house collection in 2018, saying he’s confident voters would support that amendment.

Bobeck, who had supported in-house collection, said that change wouldn’t receive the council majority support needed to get the question on the ballot.

“It would fail. It has to get through council to get to voters,” Bobeck said.

The change, as proposed, allows anyone to submit proposals, including elected tax collectors and the county treasurer’s office, he said.

Another budget look

The proposed budget change would require at least six of 11 council votes to reopen and potentially amend the budget and tax rate before Feb. 15 in the years following council elections.

Under the current charter wording, budget amendments are treated as other ordinances that can be introduced with as few as four council votes.

The proposed change was prompted by proposed budget amendments this year that held up the mailing of tax bills and did not ultimately pass. Supporters of the option to reopen the budget have said the administration should expect and prepare for the possibility of delayed tax revenue in the years after council elections.

Bobeck said he has no problem with allowing new council members to rethink the budget.

“The requirement of additional votes would put the focus on more concrete ordinances that have majority support instead of wasting times on ones that don’t have support,” Bobeck said.

Williams crafted the third proposed amendment to address a charter ban that says members of county boards and authorities can’t be employed or compensated by any individual or business serving as a contractor to the county or its boards and authorities.

The ban was intended to prevent past nepotism and conflicts of interest in appointments, but critics say it is too restrictive and has forced council to reject some viable applicants for unpaid seats.

Williams wants voters to give council the power to evaluate and decide if an applicant’s disclosed employment or compensation relationship will impact his or her “independence and impartiality” if that person is appointed to a specific board. For example, an applicant who works for a business that contracts with one county authority may seek a seat on a different board that has no contract with that company, he said.

His proposal requires applicants to disclose restrictions in writing before an appointment is made. The council chair also must publicly read disclosure statements from nominated applicants and provide the public an opportunity to comment before an appointment is made, the suggested amendment says.

The final proposed change, also from Williams, would allow council to appoint registered voters who are not Democrat or Republican to the county election board and ethics commission.

The committee will ask the full council to vote on the four changes next month.

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