Unless Luzerne County Council members change their minds in a future vote, property owners still owing 2020 county real estate taxes won’t have to pay a penalty through the end of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Property owners currently have until Aug. 18 to avoid a 10% penalty. The deadline was originally June 17, but council had voted to help struggling property owners by extending it.
Arguing that some need more time to recover financially, county Councilman Walter Griffith proposed an ordinance during Tuesday’s virtual meeting to do away with the penalty altogether this year.
Six of 11 council members — a majority — voted to introduce the ordinance, which would require final adoption at a future meeting to take effect. The others supporting introduction: Harry Haas, Linda McClosky Houck, LeeAnn McDermott, Kendra Radle and Stephen J. Urban.
The others voted no after concerns were raised about the fiscal impact on the county.
Stressing the administration will work with whatever council decides, county Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz estimated the county will forego approximately $1 million in revenue by eliminating the penalty.
Removing an incentive to pay by Aug. 18 also may prompt more to property owners to wait until the end of the year, the administration has said. Payments made Dec. 31 won’t be received until the new year because tax collectors have until Jan. 10 to turn over that money, Swetz said.
While they had voted for the Aug. 18 no-penalty extension, the following council members did not support introducing the ordinance eliminating the penalty: Matthew Vough, Chris Perry, Sheila Saidman, Robert Schnee and Tim McGinley.
As of July 10, the county received $103.6 million in 2020 county real estate tax payments, or approximately 83% of the total billed, Swetz told council. The county budget counts on a 92% collection rate based on past receipts, which means about 90% of the budgeted amount has been received, he said.
Council’s decision has no bearing on upcoming school taxes that have not yet been issued, and it’s up to each municipality to determine whether no-penalty periods will be extended for local real estate taxes.
Haas said help may be increasingly important for property owners because he “wouldn’t put it past this government to move us back to yellow or red,” referring to the color-coded phases that define coronavirus restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
“I think it’s the right thing to do. People are still struggling out there, and there are still a lot of unknowns,” Haas said of his support for Griffith’s proposal.
County Manager C. David Pedri told council he continues hearing rumors the county is reverting back to the more restrictive yellow phase but has received no word of any such possibility from the state Department of Health.
Pedri said the situation would be a “major issue” if confirmed cases were in the 30 to 50 range each day for several days in a row, which is not the case at this time.
The county had 49 cases for the entire week from July 3 to July 9, or five more than the previous week, the state’s early warning tracking dashboard shows.
“Our numbers are solid here,” Pedri told council, adding he is thankful the county has not been hit with recent significant rising case counts like Allegheny County.
Residents must “adjust to a new normal” with continued precautions because nobody knows when the pandemic will end, Pedri said.
In response to an inquiry from McClosky Houck, Pedri said all furloughed county government employees returned to work July 6 except for one in the tourism office, which is faced with revenue declines from the hotel tax.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.