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Privatization of tax claim office continues

Proposals from interested companies are due today

The proposed privatization of Luzerne County’s tax claim office is advancing, with proposals from companies interested in running the office due today.

Commissioners voted on Nov. 25 to publicly advertise the outsourcing of tax claim and have eliminated all seven full-time employees from the preliminary 2010 budget.

Commissioner Chairwoman Maryanne Petrilla has said that commissioners will decide how to proceed once they review the proposals.

If commissioners opt for privatization, they must adopt an ordinance formalizing their decision and also vote to hire a company to perform the work currently handled by tax claim workers, officials say.

The takeover would start Jan. 1, according to the county’s request for proposals.

The chosen company would agree to run the office through Dec. 31, 2011, and the county and company could agree to extend the contract an additional two years.

The company would use information supplied by the county to identify and locate the owners of property with delinquent taxes and “utilize the best practices” to collect payment.

“Collection attempts shall include and not be limited to, telephone calls, collection letters, skip tracing, and such other efforts as service provider, in its discretion, believes will result in a cost effect collection,” the proposal says.

The company must “act in a responsible business-like manner” in its collection, the proposal says.

The tax claim office has historically been criticized for allowing some politically connected property owners to keep their properties out of back-tax sales, even though these property owners were not keeping up with payment plans or paying at all.

For example, former county court administrator William Sharkey’s West Hazleton property was kept out of county back-tax sales in 2004, 2005 and 2006, even though he failed to pay his debt, county records show. Properties are supposed to go up for back-tax sale when taxes have been unpaid for two years, county officials say.

Sharkey, who awaits sentencing on theft charges in connection with the federal corruption probe, didn’t pay the $7,662 he owed from 2002 through 2006 until Aug. 9, 2007, records show.

The removal of county Recorder of Deeds James O’Brien’s former property has also raised questions. O’Brien owed back taxes on his pub from 2003 through 2007, but the property was not listed in sales.

The county’s request for proposals says the new company “shall treat all property owners consistently and without favoritism.”

The chosen company must maintain detailed records of all correspondence, phone calls and other communications, the proposal says.

All money collected must be deposited in the county’s account within one business day. The company will have no authority or power to make withdrawals from this fund.

The company must also give the county a monthly report, broken by parcel number, detailing money received and money owed.

County officials have said they would consider publicly posting this information – something that is done in other counties.

The company would have to obtain its own legal counsel to make sure it complies with all laws, though the company’s solicitor must be approved by the chief county solicitor.

Commissioners have budgeted $180,000 for tax claim next year to fund a consultant but have zeroed out all other expenses. This year’s tax claim budget is $736,984.

The county has received $9.1 million in revenue from delinquent taxes this year to date, and commissioners are counting on the same amount of receipts next year.

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