Luzerne County officials have the power under home rule to stop using elected tax collectors and switch to the in-house receipt of county property tax payments in 2014, a county senior judge ruled Wednesday.
The ruling was in response to a court challenge filed and funded by some elected tax collectors.
The tax collectors argued the home rule charter was silent on tax collection and did not expressly grant County Council authority to collect taxes a different way.
But Senior Judge David Grine said in his ruling the law is “clear” that “power to act is presumed” when home rule charters don’t contain specific language. He also cited several examples where the charter provides a “very broad, general grant of home rule authority to the county” and said tax collectors did not identify any constitutional or statutory provisions that would deny the county power to enact the change.
Six of the 11 council members supported the change in February, saying they can’t ignore the projected $258,555 in annual savings from in-house collection. They are: Jim Bobeck, Harry Haas, Rick Williams, Elaine Maddon Curry, Linda McClosky Houck and Eugene Kelleher.
Hanover Township tax collector Mildred Luba, head of the Luzerne County Tax Collectors Association, said Wednesday afternoon she was not aware of the ruling and will be discussing it with legal counsel, though she expects to appeal the decision to Commonwealth Court.
Luba and other tax collectors dispute the savings projection and say many property owners valued the customer service supplied by the 69 elected collectors. Luba predicts property owners will be confused and displeased with the change.
“It will be a total disaster,” Luba said. “We’ll see what happens. Maybe we’ll get a new council elected that will help us out.”
County Manager Robert Lawton said he included the savings from in-house collection in the county’s proposed 2014 budget because he has no doubt the spending reduction will materialize. He does not expect any problems with the change.
“I have complete confidence in the ability of the county Treasurer’s Office to accurately, effectively and efficiently handle these tax collection duties,” Lawton said.
The Treasurer’s Office has developed a plan for evening and Saturday collection hours during busy payment periods, collection at satellite locations throughout the county and the payment of taxes online, Lawton said. Three clerical workers will be added to handle the additional work, he said.
“We’ve been looking at every possible way to expand the collection reach beyond what was previously provided,” Lawton said.
Bobeck said the ruling was a victory for both tax collection and home rule.
“The county can choose its own destiny without bowing to litigation threats,” Bobeck said.
He said the tax collectors’ attorney attended a council meeting and threatened litigation to try to intimidate council from “making the correct decision,” but the majority of council was not deterred.
“The county did what was right for the taxpayers, and not just for 69 elected officials worried about their own financial pockets. This council will continue to promote the interests of the county and not special interest groups,” Bobeck said.
Rick Morelli, who was among the five council members who voted against the in-house change, said elected collectors had proposed concessions to reduce their payments and said he is not convinced the projected savings will be realized.
He also questions why the county is taking on an additional responsibility of collection that impacts all 165,000 or so property owners when it faces mass layoffs if property taxes are not increased 8 percent next year.
“How can we bring on more services when we’re not even sure we will be able to handle what we have?” Morelli said.
Lawton said the Treasurer’s Office will extensively publicize the change so property owners are aware, but Luba predicts property owners will still come to local elected collectors with their county tax payments next year.
The county change has no bearing on elected collectors’ involvement in receiving school and municipal property tax payments.
Luba said her association is endorsing five county council candidates who have expressed support for the elected tax collectors: Republican Sue Rossi, a former municipal tax collector, and Democrats Renee Ciaruffoli-Taffera, Michael Giamber, Richard “Kick” Heffron and Eileen M. Sorokas.
Eleven council candidates are on Tuesday’s general election ballot seeking five seats, and the winners will take office in January.