Luzerne County still reviewing unwarranted homestead tax break recipients

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | December 4th, 2015 4:46 pm

Luzerne County’s proposed 2016 budget does not include repayments from property owners who wrongly received homestead tax breaks on more than one property.

County Councilman Stephen A. Urban raised the issue at last week’s budget work session, questioning why the recouping of unwarranted breaks is taking so long.

The county assessor’s office has been reviewing a list of thousands of potential homestead multiples supplied by the county controller’s office since July. The controller’s office came up with the list after the March discovery that several past and present elected officials were receiving breaks on more than one property, instead of one owner-occupied primary residence as permitted by law.

“You’ve been going through it for how many months now? You don’t know what the numbers are?” Urban asked county Assessor’s Office Director Anthony Alu.

Alu said he has only one employee available to comb through the thousands of names, and she has completed about 80 percent of the analysis to date.

The review will slow down the next few months because the clerk will get hit with new homestead applications that must be processed during an annual open enrollment that expires March 1, Alu warned.

Although the county stopped offering a county-funded homestead break this year, property owners owners remain eligible for a gambling-funded homestead reduction on school property taxes.

“We’ve been doing it without the staff,” Alu told Urban. “I actually took a clerk off the front line and put her in a room and told her to work on it, but it’s so big, there are so many different caveats to it.”

County officials declared that property owners who wrongly received county breaks will be expected to repay the county, but not until the assessor’s office sends and processes letters requesting documentation from those flagged as questionable recipients.

Alu said he wants the clerk to finish her review before he sends these letters because he doesn’t want to waste money and resources on letters to those who can be verified as valid recipients through existing paperwork.

County Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz said initial estimates indicate the county may be owed around $200,000.

The county break ranged from $45 to $57 per property annually from 2009 through 2014.

Councilman Harry Haas, who was among the officials who said they were not aware they were receiving the benefit on multiple properties, told Alu he is eager to repay the county and believes many others have the same sentiment.

Alu requested two additional positions during the budget session.

Swetz, who oversees the assessor’s office, pointed to a new county five-year financial recovery plan completed by Harrisburg-based Public Financial Management that recommends a boost in assessment staff.

The county has five assessor employees to identify new construction, and one is on light duty due to an injury. When all five are counted, the county has one staffer per 33,000 parcels, which is higher than the parcel count in several other similarly-sized counties and above the International Association of Assessing Officers recommendation of one staffer per 10,000 parcels, the plan said.

The addition of two workers at starting salaries of $21,000 would total $82,000 with benefits, Swetz said.

The office employs 14, including Alu.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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