Luzerne County Democratic Committee Chairman Michael DeCosmo was appointed Hazle Township tax collector Friday evening after his son, Ryan, resigned from the elected post so taxpayers wouldn’t be saddled with higher bonding costs, officials said.
Ryan DeCosmo’s bond would have cost the township, Luzerne County and the Hazleton Area School District a combined $81,722 in 2018, compared to last year’s $7,208 for his father, who had previously served as collector.
Bonds protect taxing bodies and property owners in case real estate tax payments are lost or stolen.
Township Supervisor Chairman Jim Montone said Ryan was appointed deputy collector at the special township meeting Friday. Deputies must be covered by the bond of the elected or appointed collector, and Montone said he expects Michael’s bond will end up “more in line” with the 2017 bonding amount.
Montone commended both men.
“As we all know in Hazle Township, the DeCosmo family’s interests were always that the voters and taxpayers came first. They proved that tonight by doing what they did just because of the fact that the bond was so high,” Montone said.
Montone criticized the county controller’s office for its focus on the bond, saying he hasn’t heard of another case in which bonding has received such intense media coverage. Montone said he will request a list of historical bonding amounts for all officials in the county to see if others stand out and publicly release any findings.
“As far as I’m concerned, this was a witch-hunt from day one,” Montone said. “It’s a sad day for the township and a sad day for Luzerne County, because it’s nonsense.”
Ryan had originally turned in a bond issued to his father. County Controller Michelle Bednar released an audit Feb. 9 concluding this bond was invalid because state law requires bonds be in an elected collector’s own name. Several county council members publicly praised Bednar this week for examining the issue.
Michael had characterized Bednar’s interest in the matter as a “political ploy,” maintaining she was upset with him as party chair because she supported county council candidate Dave Popiak in last year’s primary, and he did not win. Bednar has said her review was not personal and that she pointed out the bonding issue because the law is clear and she was put in office to do her job.
Neither DeCosmo could be reached for comment by phone Friday.
Montone called for a revamping of bonding requirements, maintaining the current structure could deter younger candidates from seeking posts.
The county has long required elected collectors to obtain bonding for one-third of the maximum real estate taxes that can be paid in a year. Township and school district solicitor Christopher Slusser has questioned the county’s legal authority for this mandate because nobody has produced proof the percentage was approved by the county Court of Common Pleas as required by state law.
County officials have said they are reviewing the matter to determine what percentage will be sought in court for future years.
Hazle’s tax base
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.
Montone said the township’s tax base, which is the highest of all 76 county municipalities, continues to grow, primarily due to commercial and industrial expansion at the Humboldt Industrial Park. The one-third requirement makes bonding out of reach for many, he said.
“Is that going to alter who gets elected? Somebody needs to look at this,” Montone said. “What happened here is a young man who decided to step up to the plate and run got elected by 1,200 votes. He can legally take the seat, but he decided not to for the taxpayers.”
County Manager C. David Pedri also praised Ryan for stepping down.
“It had to be a difficult decision, but he put the needs of the taxpayers before his own,” Pedri said Friday.
County and municipal tax bills will be mailed once Michael submits his bonding, Pedri said. Tax bills in the other 75 municipalities were mailed weeks ago with a Feb. 12 issue date.
Pedri had informed council March 15 was the mandatory deadline for county and municipal tax bills to be issued, but he said Friday the administration later learned that was a target date but not required.
Ryan had initially agreed to forego pay so the county did not have to shoulder an increase of approximately $24,630 for its share of the bond this year, Pedri had said. However, that solution did not address bonding increases for the school district and township or what would happen if the bond remains higher in the three remaining years of the elected term.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.