Tax col­lec­tors sue dis­trict

The Colonial - - FRONT PAGE - By Carl Roten­berg

The elected tax col­lec­tors from West Nor­ri­ton and East Nor­ri­ton have sued the Nor­ris­town Area School Dis­trict, al­leg­ing that the com­pen­sa­tion for col­lect­ing school taxes is in­suf­fi­cient and vi­o­lates the state reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing com­pen­sa­tion and re­lated ex­penses.

West Nor­ri­ton Tax Col­lec­tor Michael Mur­ray and East Nor­ri­ton Tax Col­lec­tor Ken­neth Lah­ner sued the NASD in mid- Septem­ber, al­leg­ing a Feb. 11 res­o­lu­tion adopted by the Nor­ris­town Area School Board set the com­pen­sa­tion at $ 2.50 per tax bill. The res­o­lu­tion stated the $ 2.50 “com­pen­sa­tion in­cludes re­im­burse­ment for ex­penses such as print­ing, postage, books, blanks and forms.”

The res­o­lu­tion pur­ports to “place the cost of print­ing, postage, books, blanks and forms on elected of­fi­cials col­lect­ing dis­trict taxes by boot­strap­ping ‘ re­im­burse­ment’ for those ex­penses into the pro­posed com­pen­sa­tion scheme,” the law­suit said. “By in­clud­ing re­im­burse­ment for statu­to­rily re­quired dis­trict ex­penses within the pro­posed com­pen­sa­tion per bill, the dis­trict has pro­posed an ac­tual com­pen­sa­tion to plain­tiffs for col­lect­ing dis­trict taxes at a net amount of ap­prox­i­mately $ 1.50 per bill.

At­tor­ney Michael Savona, rep­re­sent­ing the two tax col­lec­tors, said the NASD had been col­lect­ing the school tax it­self for many years rather than al­low­ing the elected tax col­lec­tors in the two town­ships to do the work. Un­der state reg­u­la­tions, the en­tity that re­ceives the col­lected taxes has the obli­ga­tion to set the com­pen­sa­tion rate for col­lec­tions “on or be­fore Feb. 15 of the year a mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion” is held to elect town­ship tax col­lec­tors. The rea­son for the dead­line is that any can­di­date for tax col­lec­tor needs to know in ad­vance what the com­pen­sa­tion for the job will be.

Most tax col­lec­tors re­ceive col­lec­tion pay­ments from sev­eral dif­fer­ent en­ti­ties, such as the town­ship and Mont­gomery County, for tax col­lec­tion work.

“The prob­lem is that in that $ 2.50 they are lump­ing in ex­penses as­so­ci­ated with mail­ing out the tax bills. The clients [ Mur­ray and Lah­ner] es­ti­mate it costs $ 1 per par­cel. Their real com­pen­sa­tion is $ 1.50 per bill.”

The school dis­trict can­not charge for the ex­penses, ac­cord­ing to Savona.

“The law says the school dis­trict has to pay those ex­penses,” he said.

The Doylestown at­tor­ney said sev­eral elected Penn­syl­va­nia tax col­lec­tors won an Au­gust 2012 case and the state Supreme Court ruled the gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties must pay a rea­son­able rate for the col­lec­tion work elected tax col­lec­tors have to be used to do the work.

The law­suit, filed Sept. 20 in Mont­gomery County Com­mon Pleas Court, seeks a declara­tory judge­ment over­turn­ing the res­o­lu­tion or a per­ma­nent in­junc­tion di­rect­ing the school dis­trict to sep­a­rately pay the ex­penses of the school tax col­lec­tions.

In a 47- page le­gal brief from the school dis­trict an­swer­ing the tax col­lec­tors’ law­suit, at­tor­ney Peter Amuso ar­gued the law­suit had “in­suf­fi­cient speci­ficity” and Lah­ner did not have “stand­ing” to bring the law­suit be­cause he was not listed as a “qual­i­fied tax col­lec­tor” by the state.

“The plain­tiffs have made it clear to the dis­trict that Lah­ner does not in­tend to col­lect dis­trict taxes, but rather in­tends to have Mur­ray do it,” the le­gal brief said. “Penn­syl­va­nia courts have ruled that can­di­dates for tax col­lec­tor have stand­ing to sue tax­ing au­thor­i­ties over com­pen­sa­tion struc­tures dur­ing the year of their elec­tion. But here Lah­ner’s de­ci­sion not to col­lect dis­trict taxes next year means that he has no di­rect and sub­stan­tial in­ter­est to pro­tect in this mat­ter.”

The pro­posed change to hav­ing the two tax col­lec­tors take over would be­gin in Jan­uary 2014 with the first school tax bills mailed out in July 2014.

There are about 6,300 school tax bills in West Nor­ri­ton and about 6,000 tax bills in East Nor­ri­ton that would be af­fected by the law­suit. Nor­ris­town, which is also part of the school dis­trict, has Berkheimer As­so­ci­ates col­lect the school taxes. Richard Zaw­isza, the Nor­ris­town di­rec­tor of fi­nance, col­lects mu­nic­i­pal and county taxes.

“When I be­came the tax col­lec­tor I read the law. The tax col­lec­tor is the only one who has the au­thor­ity to col­lect school taxes,” Mur­ray said. “It also says a tax col­lec­tor can dep­u­tize another en­tity like the school dis­trict, but that was never done. I am look­ing to re­ceive proper com­pen­sa­tion.”

Mur­ray was elected to his first four- year term four years ago.

“I was re­tired from PECO, and I had 32 years of ex­pe­ri­ence as a cor­po­rate tax ac­coun­tant and fi­nan­cial an­a­lyst,” Mur­ray said. “I have a state cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as a cer­ti­fied tax col­lec­tor.”

Mur­ray ran for re­elec­tion on the Repub­li­can ticket in Tues­day’s elec­tion, fac­ing Demo­cratic chal­lenger Tauri Ash­tann Dou­glas. Mean­while, Lah­ner did not seek re- elec­tion.

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