Carbon County is suing the Panther Valley School District over delinquent tax files that were never given to the county tax claim bureau.
The county filed the notice of mandamus action in the Carbon County Prothonotary's office Friday morning. Named as the defendants are Panther Valley School District, Superintendent Rosemary Porembo, Ronald Slivka, Anthony Pondish, Anthony DeMarco, David Hiles, Thomas Shober, William Hunsicker, Jeff Markovich, Donna Trimmel, and R. Mickey Angst, in their capacity as members of the Panther Valley School District School Board.
The court action seeks to have delinquent tax records that were collected by Portnoff Law Associates, Ltd. of Norristown, the firm hired by the school district to pursue the collection of delinquent real estate taxes from 2000 to the present, returned to the county, so that its tax claim bureau can have complete records of all property liens and delinquencies.
In the action the county, which is represented by attorney Jane Roach Maughan of Stroudsburg, states that Panther Valley "has retained private counsel in Portnoff Law Associates, Ltd., to file municipal liens to aid in the private collection of delinquent real estate taxes, and/or has filed municipal liens and engaged in collection directly without the assistance of the counsel.
"The taxing district (Panther Valley) continues to retain the services of Portnoff and to instruct its elected tax collectors to withhold returns from the tax claim bureau."
What this means, according to the plaintiff's brief in support of mandamus relief, is that Panther Valley is not complying with the Real Estate Tax Sale Law, which requires "each county's tax claim bureau to maintain various public records of real estate tax liens and make them available to the public." Since the school district has not provided the county with the delinquent records, the tax claim bureau's files are incomplete and it creates problems for potential buyers and the municipalities when a title search is conducted.
According to the plaintiff's brief, "Liens for unpaid taxes are superior to pre-existing first lien mortgages, pre-existing judgments and all prior encumbrances other than commonwealth liens." Without up-to-date records, the county has no way of knowing if there is a lien on a property.
Maughan explains that over the last few months, the county has worked to obtain all delinquent real estate tax records from five taxing bodies in the county – Panther Valley, Jim Thorpe, Hazleton and Weatherly school districts, as well as the borough of Summit Hill – that utilized Portnoff as their delinquent tax collector at one time or another. All taxing entities except Panther Valley are cooperating with the county's request.
"Over the past several years, Panther Valley and several other local taxing districts have diverted their records away from the bureau as part of their efforts to privately collect their delinquent taxes," Maughan said. "The commissioners are currently working effectively with the several other taxing districts in a cooperative fashion to have the records returned.
"The Panther Valley School District has ignored the commissioners' requests to comply with clear Pennsylvania law and put their property tax records where they belong – in the Carbon County Tax Claim Bureau. Unfortunately, since Panther Valley School District is not cooperating, the commissioners are left with no choice but to protect public interests and sue to get the records back in the public sector."
The action also states that under the Pennsylvania Real Estate Tax Sale Law, the county tax claim bureau is entitled to a 5 percent commission on all delinquent tax collection revenues. By not turning over the records, the county is stating that Panther Valley was trying to avoid paying the commission.
According to the suit, "The estimated approximate value of the commissions owed to the bureau for the tax years (2000 to the present) for which the taxing district has failed to make the returns required of them under Real Estate Tax Sale Law total approximately $323,000 or more."
Maughan stated that the county is not trying to stop Panther Valley from using an outside tax collection agency, but rather just trying to follow the law.
"The commissioners are not interfering with the rights of taxing districts to pursue collection of their delinquent taxes," Maughan said. "Instead, they are simply enforcing the public's right to have all important real estate records in the public offices where they belong.
"The Carbon County Commissioners are committed to protecting the public's access to public records."
During a phone call to Panther Valley School Board, Superintendent Porembo said she would rather not comment on the matter until all material is reviewed.
Panther Valley, as well as the Jim Thorpe, Weatherly, and Hazleton school districts and Summit Hill, used Portnoff throughout the years because the company promised to get the delinquent tax money faster than the county, and its services would be of no charge to the district. The added expense for their services would instead be added to the delinquent taxpayer's bill.
Carbon County began working to obtain the records from Panther Valley and the other taxing entities that utilized Portnoff earlier this year.
In September, they approved a letter of understanding between the county and Riley and Company of Mount Pocono, a certified public accountant, for services relative to the delinquent tax records.
The agreement stated that Riley and Company would assist the county in assessing the overall accuracy of Portnoff's information on delinquent tax collections collected for the five entities. The cost for the company's services is not to exceed $60,000.