What do you do when the tax collector won't accept the money for your taxes, causing penalties and late charges, and then doesn't cash the check? That was the question put forth to Mahoning Township supervisors during their public comment by resident Ralph Hohenstein.
"I received bills from Joann (Swarcheck, the previous tax collector) each year and they were paid in full usually early," Hohenstein said. "But now with Richard (Swarcheck) I have to go and get them."
At issue is a tax bill paid through Bank of America which holds the mortgage and an escrow account on his property. Hohenstein said through the construction of his home the past few years, Joann Swarcheck had sent all of the bills promptly and told him just to forward them to the bank. Now the late tax collector's husband, who assumed the position after her death, has yet to send any bills to Hohenstein..
He said the last tax bill for April 1, 2009 was promptly paid on April 22, 2009 by the bank, and that should have been the end of the issue. Later in September the school taxes were dealt with without a problem. In December, he received a late notice from Richard Swarcheck, saying his bill was late and in danger of being delinquent.
Hohenstein said Swarcheck asked if he paid the September bill, saying that may be what prompted the notice. He said when he dealt with Joann Swarcheck in the past, he received the April taxes and the school taxes in August, but never received an April bill. At that point Swarcheck informed him the bill in question was the April taxes.
"I told him (Swarcheck) the April taxes had been paid," he said. He then discovered that near the end of July, Swarcheck returned the two checks for the April taxes to the bank with no correspondence or explanation, almost four months after the taxes were paid. At that point Hohenstein said Swarcheck told him they may have been returned because the address was incorrect.
Hohenstein said initially the address was a P.O. Box, but Mrs. Swarcheck, on April 4, 2009, sent him paperwork to resolve the address, followed by a note to send to the bank to officially change the address, and they ensured the bank and the Carbon County office changed the address.
Later on Feb. 5, 2010 Hohenstein said the bank informed him the money was returned to the escrow account, which placed an overage in it that needed to be returned to him. He said the bank was then trying to assess him for the late fees, but he worked with the bank to help them realize the taxes were paid on time and it wasn't he who was late.
Next Hohenstein received a notice from the collection agency about the taxes and finally, one year and six days later, he said the taxes were finally recognized as being paid. In order to recoup the late fees he needed a letter from the tax collector admitting the taxes were originally paid in a timely manner.
Hohenstein then read a telephone log to the supervisors explaining there were almost a dozen phone calls trying to resolve this issue with Swarcheck, but numerous times there was no response or little cooperation. He said on some of the calls, during which he was on the line, Swarcheck was difficult with the bank and agencies. He said the bank simply wants a letter that states the taxes were originally paid on time so the fees could be removed.
He told supervisors when the tax bill was attempted to be paid on Feb. 23, 2010, the check drawn from his account and sent by the bank still has not been cashed by Swarcheck or anyone else and is currently missing. He said he had to place a stop on the check to keep it from being paid, because no one seems to know where it is.
Hohenstein told supervisors besides the many phone calls, he and his wife have had to make several visits to Swarcheck in attempts to resolve the issue and what he learned concerned him. He said it's not really his concern, but there could be larger problems than his particular issue.
He said that when Swarcheck was visited in January to find out why the check was returned, he said it had the wrong amount on it and he had 600 other checks to return as well. He said they showed Swarcheck documentation and he allegedly said he didn't know where they went, even though the amount and parcel numbers were on the checks.
He then said he didn't return the check, Mrs. Swarcheck did. Hohenstein said he should have been notified the check was returned and Swarcheck allegedly asked him who was going to pay for such a notice. Hohenstein said he told him that it really wasn't his problem, so Swarcheck responded by saying it was his word against Hohenstein that the bill was not paid.
Hohenstein said he didn't receive the 2010 tax bill so on April 10 they went to see Swarcheck again and Swarcheck gave him the bill. He told Hohenstein though that he would not be providing the letter requested by the bank about the tax error on the 2009 bill, because he didn't feel he made a mistake and he wanted to know why Hohenstein was trying to get the money back for the bank. He said he wasn't, but the bill was paid and he wanted a letter for the tax claim bureau to correct the penalties incorrectly charged.
He next related to supervisors that while on that last visit, two other taxpayers entered the office while he and Swarcheck were discussing this issue. One said a mistake was made on her "papers" too and a second woman entered and returned a tax bill to Swarcheck that was for an entirely different person and parcel.
"If you have that many problems in that snapshot of time I was there, you have bigger issues (with your tax collector) than me," he told supervisors.
He told supervisors half the addresses on the current tax bills are wrong, two with the address and two with the P.O. Box. He summarized by telling supervisors he would like a letter stating there was an error on the taxes by the office so that it can be given to the bank to correct their errors. Secondly, he asked supervisors if the office was audited and suggested they may want to consider doing so, since it is their money he is collecting.
Hohenstein said he has owned eight different homes over the years and has never had the problems he has had in the past year. He plans to send the letter to the tax claim bureau to show the late fees were charged in error so the bank can receive the fees back.
Chairman John Wieczorek said he could sympathize with him as he went through something similar and he overheard other clients complaining about it also while he was there. Hohenstein said Swarcheck said over 600 checks were returned for supposedly being in error.
Wieczorek said he has heard comments that the township should do an audit, but he wasn't sure when it could be done as he believed there might be a limit on the time to request it. He also mentioned that one of the employees had a similar issue in which a check was returned because the amount was in error because it was overpaid and no notice was given, so he also received a delinquent notice.
Supervisor Linda Benner said she had a similar problem. Hohenstein's wife said she had the same problems and when they tried to get in touch with him he changed his hours or a woman would answer the call and tell them Swarcheck wasn't available.
Hohenstein said, "This should be an easy thing. We are not trying to avoid paying the bill. We are trying to pay it and we have all of this trouble."
He told Wieczorek the bills were paid on time and in full. He reiterated he received the bills from the previous collector but he has not received any bills from the current tax collector.
Wieczorek said he and another member of the board, along with solicitor Tom Nanovic, should meet with the tax collector and discuss with him what is happening. He also invited Hohenstein to explain his situation. Additionally, he asked Nanovic to find out if there was a way to start an audit on 2009's records due to these concerns.
Finally, Supervisor Travis Steigerwalt asked Natalie Haggerty to ask residents who call with problems about their taxes, to submit the issue in writing so there would be documentation about the problems in case it would be needed in the future.