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Portnoff speaks out

Published December 20. 2010 05:00PM

A tax collection agency that was used by six taxing entities in Carbon County to collect delinquent taxes, is speaking out against statements made by the Carbon County Commissioners earlier this month.

Michelle Portnoff, president of Portnoff Law Associates of Norristown; and Alan Portnoff, founder of the company, talked about various statements that they said were misleading about the company and the delinquent tax collections process and regulations.

Michelle said that the suit that Carbon County has against Panther Valley, which is scheduled to be heard in front of Carbon County Judge Steven Serfass on Tuesday, will be watched by all counties in the state because it deals with a 5 percent commission that counties are entitled to, even if they were not the body collecting the delinquent taxes.

She pointed out that the basis for the lawsuit is not that Panther Valley is utilizing Portnoff to collect its delinquent taxes, but rather it is that the district didn't file a return on the delinquent tax collection to the county tax claim bureau.

According to a ruling on a case in Monroe County, delinquent tax files have to be filed with the county, but Michelle said, do not have to be collected by the county.

She also noted that the ruling entitles counties to a 5 percent commission on all delinquent taxes that are collected. Carbon County is seeking reimbursement of thousands of dollars, which represent the 5 percent commission, from Panther Valley for the delinquent taxes that have been collected from 2000 to the present.

Another point that Michelle said was misleading, was a statement made by the commissioners that Portnoff is a "vulture" that slaps on "an exorbitant fee" on top of the taxpayer's already delinquent taxes.

"Until last year, when we had the litigation in Monroe, we had the good fortune of having clients for over 20 years," Alan said. "If we were any way abusive to the delinquent taxpayers, the municipal bodies would be on our neck immediately because they are subject to the vote every two or four years. We don't have that. We have a string of accolades. We produce a better rate of return than anyone in the commonwealth."

Michelle and her father both said that Portnoff follows the rules of the Municipal Claim and Tax Lien Law, which was signed into law in 1996 by then Gov. Tom Ridge, when dealing with delinquent taxes.

The law sets rates and fees that can be charged to a delinquent taxpayer, instead of a taxing body being charged the fees.

Michelle pointed out that there are requirements that the company must abide by, including notifying the individual by certified mail and giving them 30 days to respond, when collecting the delinquent taxes. They also use a comprehensive review to help determine the best route for delinquent payments, including having flexible payment installment options that county tax claim bureaus usually don't have.

Michelle explained that Portnoff can provide various payment options to the delinquent taxpayers, which help the taxpayers overall.

"We are very flexible," she said, adding that many counties cannot accept partial payments. "The fact that we are willing to work out payment plans is a real advantage because most people want to pay their taxes. There is no district that we represent that doesn't want us to work with the taxpayers. We are mindful that all taxpayers are not interested in having to choose to pay their taxes or pay for food."

Michelle continued that if the delinquent works with Portnoff to make a payment plan and pays, other fees, such as legal costs, could potentially be dropped from their bill if no further action is necessary.

Alan noted that on average statewide, 40 percent of the property owners in these situations pay no legal fees because legal proceedings were not required.

"The best benefit of fee shifting is that once there is the potential for a fee to be added, there is an extra incentive for a tax delinquent to no longer be a delinquent," Michelle said.

This way of operation, Alan said, helps the school districts in the long run because lowering the delinquent tax list, helps all taxpayers by allowing districts to keep taxes lower.

He noted that if a school district has a delinquent tax rate of 10 percent, overall taxes for the district must rise by about 11 percent to make up for the shortfall.

Michelle added that Portnoff has collected a total of $386,680 this year in delinquent taxes for the district.

The way Portnoff operates, puts the shortfall back on the delinquents rather than penalizing all taxpayers.

Alan also noted that Portnoff has seen that the majority of tax delinquents statewide are slumlords and commercial property owners, who own multiple properties in numerous counties.

Of the 5 percent commission that counties can collect, Alan said, he feels it isn't right.

"The truth is everyone is stretched for tax dollars and taking money out of the school district's budget is placing a strain at the cost of the children, which seem to be lost in all this litigation," he said, adding that he has never heard what taking 5 percent away from the school district does to the extra benefits, such as school activities, in a school district.

Other points that the Portnoffs refuted include the records that they have on each delinquent.

Michelle said that the action the commissioners took on Dec. 9 to add an addendum to a letter of understanding with Riley and Company of Mount Pocono, for services in assessing the overall accuracy of Portnoff's information on the collections, implies that the records Portnoff has are inaccurate. This addendum will cost the county a total of $90,000.

She added that the company feels that the real purpose of the addendum for an audit, is to figure out the commission claim.

A final point Michelle and Alan say was incorrect is a statement that was made, saying that Portnoff convinced the taxing bodies to put liens on the delinquents' properties.

Michelle said that they did not convince the districts to do this, but it is appropriate action because it gives the property owner time to pay what they can without losing their home.

After all payment is received, whether it is through a payment plan or paid all at once, the lien is removed.

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