Luzerne County officials are debating how to get tax-delinquent properties off the county’s books while keeping them out of the wrong hands.
“Some of these speculators come out and buy these properties for a song and sit on them with hopes they can sell them for a windfall,” county Councilman Harry Haas said at a recent county council work session. “That situation is hurting some of our communities.”
The council is set to vote Tuesday on the proposed sale of six of more than 1,000 properties in its repository — a pool of real estate in limbo that nobody snatched up in past county tax auctions.
The surplus of delinquent properties is a concern because the county is liable for them when the owners of record have abandoned them and stopped paying real estate taxes, officials say.
The county has more repository properties than the 11 other similarly sized third-class counties in Pennsylvania, records show.
Haas said he wants county tax-claim operator Northeast Revenue Service, LLC, to conduct more research on prospective bidders so the council can weed out those who have failed to fix up and maintain past or present tax sale acquisitions.
Councilman Rick Williams concurred and suggested expanding questions for prospective bidders.
Repository bidders must sign a document that states they will be disqualified from receiving a deed if they have delinquent real estate taxes in the county or have revoked renting privileges or municipal utility bills more than one year behind in the municipality where they want to buy a property.
Northeast Revenue representatives John Rodgers and Sean Shamany said Monday they were not informed of the council’s concerns but are willing to meet with county officials to discuss expanding the bid form.
“It’s the county’s policy, and they can revise it, but it must be uniform for all prospective bidders,” Rodgers said.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban cautioned that the law limits the grounds for disqualifying repository purchasers. He also stressed municipalities and school districts receive official notice of proposed sales and have an opportunity to object before the council votes.
State law allows repository sales at any time without the need to publicly advertise them. Special circumstances were established in the law to encourage sales because the holding of repository properties “constitutes a cost to the county and (tax claim) bureau,” the law says. Taxing bodies may not “unreasonably withhold” consent of sales, the law says.
County Manager C. David Pedri said the county remains liable for repository properties.
“I definitely understand your need for information, but you have to weigh that with what’s the county’s benefit of holding onto a piece of property that somebody wants to buy,” he told the council.
Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck said repository properties were not sold in two previous public tax auctions. She also questioned what additional information the county could legally seek to predict a buyer won’t be viable.
“At a certain point you have to say, ‘Are we going to hang on to this and the liability, or are we going to move it along?’” she said.
All six offers were for the minimum bid of $500.
According to the agenda and county records, FIQ Investment Company wants to buy three properties.
Two are attached duplexes on a combined 0.4 acres on Main Street in the Pardeesville section of Hazle Township that have a total assessment of $192,300. The other is a half-double in Hollywood Village in Hazle Township on 0.1 acres assessed at $40,200.
FIQ has no corporate officers listed in published state records. It is registered at 527 Seybert St., Hazleton, which is owned by Wilma Sencion.
Former county controller Walter Griffith sent the council a record last month showing FIQ owed nearly $6,000 in back taxes dating back to 2013 on a Sambourne Street apartment building in Wilkes-Barre, but county tax claim records show that debt has since been paid.
The other two repository purchases are for land. Ryan P. Casey wants to buy a 0.1-acre parcel on Brislin Street in Warrior Run assessed at $10,000, and Joseph W. Sims submitted a bid on two parcels on Woodhaven Drive in Foster Township that are each 0.26 acres and assessed at $7,000.