Hazle Township Solicitor Christopher Slusser is questioning Luzerne County’s legal authority to mandate elected tax collector bonding for one-third of the maximum real estate taxes that can be paid in a year.
The issue came up because the county has delayed the township’s 2018 county/municipal tax bill mailing, citing elected tax collector Ryan DeCosmo’s failure to submit a bond.
County Controller Michelle Bednar released an audit Friday concluding the bond he turned in was invalid because it was not in his name and had been issued to his father and prior township tax collector, Michael DeCosmo, who currently serves as Luzerne County Democratic Party chairman.
Slusser criticized Bednar for not taking a step back to examine the legality of the bonding amounts.
“She did not start the race at the starting line,” said Slusser, who is also the Hazleton Area School District solicitor.
He pointed to a section of state law that says the amount of the bond shall be fixed by the county Court of Common Pleas. A court order setting a one-third, or 33.33 percent, requirement has not been produced by the county or cited in the audit, Slusser said.
County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said no court order has been found in her office’s preliminary research, although she noted that search was not exhaustive.
Bednar said the scope of her audit was centered on the proper submission of bonds by collectors because tax bills were in the process of being mailed. She said she is now researching the origin of the long-standing, one-third requirement since the question has come up.
While the one-third authority is unclear, Crocamo said an option will be asking the court to set the bond amounts going forward. She said she was not sure if the county or township would pursue such a request in court for Hazle Township.
County/municipal tax bills were officially issued Monday in the other 75 municipalities, allowing revenue to start flowing in. The Hazle Township collector has until March 15 to file a bond in the county Clerk of Courts office under the law, Bednar said. Municipalities can appoint another collector if the elected one fails to furnish a bond, the law states.
Hazle Township supervisors unanimously voted Monday night to name Michael DeCosmo as the deputy tax collector and did not publicly discuss the tax bill mailing delay or bonding. Bednar’s audit said state law requires deputy tax collectors to fall under the umbrella of the elected tax collector’s bond.
Slusser said Ryan DeCosmo is able to secure a bond that must be paid by taxing bodies because he was elected to the post, but he has been trying to obtain a better rate so taxpayers would not be saddled with additional expense. The county, municipality and school district split the cost of collector bonds.
Using the traditional one-third, the Hazle Township tax collector must be bonded for approximately $8 million because the maximum school, county and local taxes collected in the township would be $24.63 million based on current tax rates, records show.
Michael DeCosmo has said his bond costs the three taxing bodies approximately $10,000 combined annually, and a bond for his son would cost about three or four times more based on Ryan’s age, debts and income. Michael DeCosmo is approaching his mid-60s, and his son is in his 30s.
The elder DeCosmo has accused Bednar of focusing on the matter for political reasons, saying she was upset with him and other party leaders when council candidate Dave Popiak, whom she supported, was not elected last May. Bednar has denied that allegation, saying she is doing her job.
Slusser also asked if Bednar’s public posting of the audit without a county response last week was a home rule charter violation and evidence of a “personal, political agenda.” The charter says a draft of each audit must be submitted to the audited entity for its review and comment prior to release.
Bednar countered that she was following another charter requirement to promptly notify council and the manager if she finds an irregularity. The potential for bills to be issued to an unbonded tax collector triggered that charter provision, she said.
Slusser also pointed out the audit said Hanover Township was the only exception to the one-third requirement because it is ranked a first-class township, which would have a bonding mandate of at least 50 percent. However, the state lists three other first-class townships — Plains, Wilkes-Barre and Newport — prompting him to question if those three have insufficient bonding of one-third that was not flagged in the audit.
Bednar said Hanover Township is the only first-class township with a 50-percent requirement because the elected collector also serves as township treasurer. She said she will amend her audit to clarify the explanation.
Crocamo said the administration will respond to Bednar’s audit within the 14-day requirement, and she remains confident a solution will be reached within two weeks that ensures county taxpayers are protected.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.