Tax collection change and other charter amendments up for Luzerne County Council discussion Tuesday

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | May 8th, 2016 4:47 pm

A controversial proposal to ask voters if they want to switch to in-house Luzerne County tax collection is set for discussion at Tuesday’s county council work session.

A council majority had voted to stop using elected collectors for county real estate taxes in 2013, but a new majority reversed that decision in 2014 before in-house collection by the county treasurer’s office took effect.

Some council members argue the decision should be left to county voters in the Nov. 8 general election, while others say the current collection structure should be left alone.

County Councilman Rick Williams, who chairs the legislative committee that first discussed the proposed home rule charter amendment, said a ballot question would force public discussion on the pros and cons and allow the public to weigh in.

Critics say the current system is antiquated and more costly, while defenders say elected collectors provide valuable customer service that could be less expensive than in-house collection once all costs are factored in.

The county pays elected tax collectors $2.50 to process each paid county real estate bill in 68 municipalities. The county treasurer’s office collects county taxes in five municipalities — Hazleton, Pittston, Wilkes-Barre, Newport Township and Nanticoke — and pays three home rule municipalities $1.50 per collected bill — Kingston, Kingston Township and Wilkes-Barre Township.

The switch to a centralized county tax collection system would take effect January 2018 if the question is on the November ballot and passes.

Several other proposed home rule charter amendment ballot questions are up for discussion Tuesday.

To get on the ballot, each question must be approved in ordinance form by a council majority at a future meeting. The ordinances must be filed with the county election office by Aug. 9.

The other proposed charter amendment questions would ask voters if they want to:

Allow citizens who are employed or compensated by entities that do business with the county and its outside boards and authorities to serve on boards and authorities.

Prospective appointees would be required to fully disclosure the nature of their interests both in writing and at a public meeting, and the public must have an opportunity to comment.

Cancel a charter provision requiring county authority/board/commission members to wait one year after they leave their seats to serve as an elected county official.

This charter ban would have impacted two past county council contenders if they had been elected.

Require a council majority vote — instead of four out of 11 council members — to introduce ordinances to reopen and possibly amend the county budget in the years following council elections.

Supporters of the change have said four members shouldn’t have the power to hold up the budget, but critics say new members should have latitude to conduct due diligence.

Stop requiring citizens serving on the county election board and ethics commission to be members of the two political parties with the highest representation — Democrat and Republican.

Based on the current wording, the council must appoint two Democrats and two Republicans to the five-person election board. Those election board members then choose a citizen of any party affiliation to serve as the fifth member and board chair.

Council must appoint two citizens — one Democrat and one Republican — to serve on the ethics commission with the county manager, controller and district attorney.

Under the proposed change, a provision would be added requiring election board and ethics commission members appointed by the council to be of different political parties or politically unaffiliated.

• Eliminate the county manager from the Joint Airport Board overseeing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.

The manager currently serves along with the council chair or his/her designee and a council member selected by a council majority. With the change, a second council member selected by the council would serve instead of the manager.

In other business, the council also is scheduled to discuss a proposed new vehicle registration fee for county residents Tuesday.

State legislators had approved the option for a $5 vehicle registration fee to fund county road and bridge expenses, but a council majority has not pushed the issue.

The fee would generate an estimated $1.5 million for the county.

Some council members have been highly critical of the proposal in the past, saying residents should not be burdened with the additional expense. Advocates say the fee will provide an estimated $1.5 million in revenue and will force all vehicle owners to share in the expense of maintaining transportation infrastructure, not just those who own property subjected to real estate taxes.

Tuesday’s work session will follow a 6 p.m. voting meeting and public hearing on a proposed ordinance to create a new county blight committee. The meeting is in the council meeting at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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