Luzerne County Councilman Harry Haas is proposing a $5 county refund to each owner-occupied primary residence next year.
Haas argued the refund, though admittedly small, is warranted for the more than 80,000 homesteads because the county will be receiving additional funding from a new $5 vehicle registration fee and state match to address infrastructure.
Several council members questioned his logic, saying the fee’s purpose was to speed up a backlog of vehicle repairs that far exceed available funding, even with the new fee and state match.
Haas raised the issue during last week’s work session and requested a vote at a future meeting.
The vehicle fee on 281,000 vehicles, which is set to take effect in September, will generate an estimated $1.4 million to repair the county’s 302 bridges and approximately 125.3 miles of roads. Council added a provision automatically ending the fee if a state match of up to $2 million for bridges is not continued for a second year.
County officials plan to spend the $1.4 million on a bridge project to receive the full match, for a total $2.8 million.
Haas, who did not support the fee, said 84 percent of county government’s funding comes from real estate taxes.
Granting a homestead refund, even if it is only for one year, would show the county supports efforts to “wean ourselves off of property taxes,” Haas said. County officials have urged state legislators to allow county governments to use other revenue sources to reduce reliance on real estate taxes, he said.
Councilman Robert Schnee said he made the unpopular but “responsible” decision to support the fee because many county-owned roads and bridges are in disrepair.
“Anybody can vote no, and you just keep kicking the bucket down the road,” Schnee said. “I’m not going to leave Luzerne County in disrepair.”
Councilman Stephen A. Urban said he did not vote for the fee because the county already has nearly $2.73 million in unspent Act 13 bridge funding in the bank that could have been used to fix “rickety” bridges.
County Manager C. David Pedri subsequently released a list of four bridges that will be repaired with $1.2 million of this stockpiled Act 13 funding and said he will soon announce which other structurally deficient bridges will be addressed with the remaining $1.5 million.
Pedri’s proposed capital plan listed other high-priority bridge repairs or replacements over the next few years that would total more than $21 million.
The manager said he did not want to spend the Act 13 funding until the vehicle fee was approved in case that money was needed for an emergency.
Urban also noted Haas did not support last December’s 2018 budget amendment proposals for various tax-rate reductions due to a surplus.
County residents had saved $45 to $57 on their county taxes annually from 2009 until the county-funded break ended in 2015, said Urban, who had vehemently opposed that homestead termination.
“To try to put $5 back in, to me, is not relevant at this point in time,” Urban said.
Councilwoman Sheila Saidman said the administrative paperwork required to return $5 would be a “nightmare.” Most of the vehicle fee criticism she heard was from people who own three or four vehicles, she said, questioning the impact of a $5 return.
“I don’t think it’s going to make a difference to them Harry,” she said.
Councilman Eugene Kelleher said the revenue is needed for infrastructure and that returning the money would create confusion. The fee also honored the push to diversify revenue sources because it is based on vehicle ownership, not real estate, he said.
“I don’t think it’s a great idea,” Kelleher said of Haas’ suggestion. “I won’t support that.”
Councilwoman Jane Walsh Waitkus said county officials must be “grown-ups” in addressing infrastructure problems, even though she was not “thrilled” to add the fee.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.