Backed against a wall, Luzerne County’s elected tax collectors have agreed to accept deeper pay cuts so the county will keep using their services.
The agreement, which may be clinched at tonight’s County Council meeting, would end a contentious battle over county tax collection that began when collectors unsuccessfully campaigned against the switch to home rule in 2010, accurately predicting the change in government would allow the county to assign collection to someone else.
The issue has been a contentious one for about two years. Collectors appealed an October 2013 court ruling that concluded council had the right under home to move to in-house collection by the county Treasurer’s Office to save $240,000.
The 69 elected collectors had received $3.50 for both paid and unpaid county tax bills.
If the county agrees to cancel in-house collection, the elected collectors will drop their court appeal and accept $2 for each paid county tax bill and nothing for unpaid bills, according to five sources familiar with the negotiation.
This reduction would remain in place for 2015, though the payment would increase to $2.50 per paid bill during the last two years of the collectors’ four-year terms, the sources said.
The collectors also would face a new penalty if they don’t turn over tax payments on time, and no elected collector would be paid more than $25,000 annually for county taxes, the sources said.
County Council is scheduled to vote on the settlement at tonight’s meeting.
The sources believe the reduced pay will allow the county to keep collectors without jeopardizing the $240,000 savings included in the 2014 budget from in-house collection.
Council Chairman Rick Morelli, who voted against in-house collection, said he can’t comment because he is awaiting a report from the administration on the proposed settlement in a closed-door executive session before tonight’s meeting. County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said he can’t discuss the settlement until council votes.
Hanover Township tax collector Mildred Luba, head of the Luzerne County Tax Collectors Association, declined to discuss the specifics but acknowledged the collectors have agreed to significant pay cuts.
Luba and others maintained property owners would miss the customer service provided by collectors.
“Now we can take care of the people we were elected to serve. That’s what we’re here for,” Luba said. She said numerous property owners signed petitions supportive of keeping collectors.
The elected collectors had offered to accept pay cuts saving an estimated $125,000 before a council majority voted for in-house collection, she said. Council members never made it clear the elected collectors would have to save more to prevent outsourcing, she said.
“They had their minds made up,” she said.
A reversal became possible in January when Kathy Dobash and Eileen Sorokas joined council and expressed support for returning to elected collectors. They are expected to join Morelli, Stephen A. Urban, Stephen J. Urban and Edward Brominski in keeping elected collectors.
The Treasurer’s Office had been proceeding with plans to start handling the duty and had posted an advertisement on the county website seeking two new employees to assist with tax collection. Office representatives insist they are equipped to handle the increased duties, but some council members are skeptical and concerned about the loss of collectors who reside in communities they serve.
Kingston resident Brian Shiner has publicly questioned the legality of going back to elected collectors. Last year’s election of tax collectors was based on the understanding they would no longer be paid to collect county taxes, and a reversal would be unfair to people who decided not to run for the post for that reason, he has said.
Luba said prospective candidates for tax collector knew the switch to in-house collection approved by council in February 2013 was uncertain because elected collectors publicly said they would legally challenge it. Some elected collectors have paid at least $20,000 to date on the court case, she said.
Though the elected collectors as a group have accepted pay cuts, some individual collectors may forego the county work because they believe the pay is now too low, Luba said. If this happens, neighboring elected collectors may offer to handle the additional municipalities, though municipal officials in each jurisdiction have final say over naming a replacement, she said.