Switch to in-house Luzerne County tax collection back on the public agenda

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com

By Jennifer Learn-Andes



The centralizing of Luzerne County tax collection may be put before voters as a proposed home rule charter amendment on the November general election ballot.

A Luzerne County Council majority had voted to stop using elected collectors and switch to in-house county tax collection in 2013, but the change never got off the ground because a new majority reversed the decision in January 2014.

The matter is back in public discussion because council’s strategic initiatives committee was tasked with developing possible charter amendments.

In-house tax collection is among several potential charter revision ballot questions on the agenda at Tuesday’s committee meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. The committee makes recommendations to the full 11-member county council for its consideration.

A council majority must approve ordinances to place charter revision questions on the ballot by July to meet an Aug. 9 deadline to file paperwork with the county election office for the Nov. 8 election, said committee Chairman Rick Williams.

The county treasurer’s office already collects county taxes in Hazleton, Pittston, Wilkes-Barre, Newport Township and Nanticoke.

Sixty-eight municipalities have elected tax collectors, and the three remaining home-rule municipalities collect county taxes in-house, according to the county treasurer’s office.

The county’s elected tax collectors have four-year terms and will be on the ballot again in 2017, which means any changes in county collection, including their payments, must be set before they run, officials said.

A council majority in 2014 locked in an agreement with elected tax collectors to pay them $2 for each paid county bill in 2014 and 2015 and $2.50 in the final two years of their terms. They had previously received $3.50 for both paid and unpaid county tax bills.

Williams and several other council colleagues have described the elected tax collector system as inefficient and outdated, while supporters say many residents, particularly the elderly, prefer the customer service of collectors in their communities.

The committee chairman said the centralized tax collection and 10 other charter amendments he’s proposing for the November ballot stem from his own ideas and feedback from citizens, council colleagues and the administration.

The county law office has reviewed all 11 proposals and concluded they would not rise to the level of requiring formation of a new government study commission, Williams said.

A study commission is required to significantly alter a county government structure. A council majority last month rejected a proposal to ask voters if they want to convene a study commission, with some saying they would support alterations but not a major overhaul at this time. The county’s customized home rule structure has been in place since January 2012.

The other proposed charter amendments on Tuesday’s strategic initiatives agenda:

• Allow people employed by entities that do business with the county to serve on county boards and authorities if the nature of their relationship to the county is publicly discussed and weighed before a council vote.

• End a charter prohibition barring county board/authority/commission members from serving on the county council for one year after leaving a board/authority/commission.

• Delete a charter prohibition requiring former county council members to wait one year before serving on county boards, authorities and commissions.

• Increase the 90-day limit for qualified people to serve as temporary county division heads.

• Require a council majority vote — not only four votes — to introduce ordinances to amend the county budget when the council reorganizes after elections.

• Permit the council to appoint registered voters who are not Democrat or Republican to the county election board and ethics commission.

• Extend the deadline for the annual audit completion, which is currently six months in the following fiscal year, or June 30.

• Increase the 60-day period an authority/board/commission member may serve in an expired term when a new appointment has not been made by the council.

• Move county public safety departments under the Correctional Services Division.

• Combine economic development, planning/zoning, tourist promotion and other economic development-related departments in the same division.

Williams said the committee also is open to other proposed charter revisions.

Council members Edward Brominski, Jane Walsh Waitkus and Linda McClosky Houck also serve on the committee.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

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