Luzerne County’s main free-and-clear tax auction last August was a hit, drawing a record crowd that snatched up 161 of the 307 properties up for grabs for a combined $1.3 million.
The upcoming Aug. 25 sale may pale in comparison because fewer properties are available. The latest auction roster contains only around 115 properties.
It’s not because fewer properties carry delinquent taxes dating back at least two years, making them eligible for auction.
The reduction stems from problems fulfilling a legal mandate to notify everyone with a stake in each auction-eligible property of their right to contest a sale in court, officials said.
The auctioning of 140 properties will be delayed until a special Oct. 27 free-and-clear auction due to issues serving all parties, records show.
Another 100 properties that were eligible for the Aug. 25 sale must be pushed off until another special free-and-clear sale next April because the county sheriff’s office needed more time to serve documents involved in that batch, officials said.
Notification to all potential claimants is important because properties at final-stage, free-and-clear sales go to the highest bidder with the understanding all mortgages, liens, sewage bills or other past baggage is no longer attached.
Bidders could encounter legal challenges or difficulties obtaining clean property titles on their acquisitions if someone with a claim wasn’t properly notified, said Sean Shamany, a representative of county tax-claim operator Northeast Revenue Service LLC.
“If there are 10 entities to serve on a property, and we only received service on eight, we will pull the property from the sale. We’d rather err on the side of caution,” Shamany said.
Shamany and other Northeast Revenue representatives are quick to stress they don’t fault the county sheriff’s office and that other factors are at play.
“Sheriff departments are unable to serve as many notices in some areas due to staffing. They don’t have enough bodies to go about it,” Shamany said.
Dyan E. Dinstel, an attorney with Northeast Revenue, said Luzerne County sheriff deputies have “done very well” serving tax sale notices with limited resources.
Luzerne County sheriff deputies served most of their documents in the 140 sales that had to be postponed to October, Dinstel said.
The dilemma: Her office must notify out-of-state parties through certified mail, and it often takes two months or more to receive confirmation this mail was accepted or unsuccessful, she said.
Northeast Revenue also must rely on sheriff’s offices in other counties to serve parties that are in Pennsylvania but outside Luzerne County, and some take “an inordinate amount of time,” she said.
More properties in this year’s free-and-clear also had multiple liens attached, expanding the number of parties requiring notification, she said.
Property owners often dodge service and ignore certified mail or cards left by sheriffs, exacerbating service challenges, Dinstel said.
Northeast Revenue can ask the court for permission to publish a legal advertisement that will qualify as service if parties can’t be reached, but this option isn’t available unless the tax-claim operator demonstrates it has exhausted efforts to find someone, usually after at least two unsuccessful service attempts, Dinstel said.
County Sheriff Brian Szumski said his limited staff must juggle several requirements along with serving tax sale documents.
“We struggle daily. We could always use more staff, which would further improve service for tax sales, but we try to make do with what we have because of the financial state of the county,” Szumski said.
Sheriff deputies also must provide courtroom security, transport prisoners, oversee sheriff mortgage foreclosure sales and serve civil court paperwork and warrants for failure to appear for county court proceedings.
Last year, the office had to serve and process 1,343 protection-from-abuse filings, handle 5,690 prisoner transports and issue 6,500 gun permits on top of serving 3,336 warrants and 10,976 civil court documents, Szumski said. This does not include service associated with sheriff and tax sales, he said.
In addition to the sheriff position, the office employs 39 workers: 33 deputies, two lieutenants and four civil clerks. The office previously employed 15 to 20 additional part-time deputies, but those positions were cut for fiscal reasons, Szumski said.
The tax-delinquent properties postponed to the October auction include an old school on Main Street in Laflin owned by Jerome J. Patelunas II, the Italian Education Circle social/fraternal hall at 3 McTague St., Pittston Township, a three-story apartment building at 423 Scott St. in Wilkes-Barre owned by Michael Chiriac, and the shuttered Academy Super Market building, 121 Academy St., owned by BSE Properties LLC.
Remaining in the Aug. 25 sale are numerous residential and vacant land parcels and several commercial structures, including the former Redick’s Wholesale Fruits and Produce property at 335 E. Northampton St. in Wilkes-Barre, which is owned by members of the Redick family.
Northeast Revenue officials started holding special free-and-clear auctions several years ago, instead of a traditional single annual sale, to speed up the resolution of delinquent properties.
“This year we will have larger than usual October and April sales,” Dinstel said.