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EDITORIAL: Poison pill suits toxic governance

Times-Tribune - 8/20/2017

Aug. 20--Patrick O'Malley and Laureen Cummings really, really do not want to conduct the first reassessment of Lackawanna County properties in half a century.

But the odd couple of county commissioners lack the political courage and recognition of their own responsibility to simply reject reassessment. Instead, they have punted governance to residents by ginning up a referendum for the November ballot on whether to reassess.

Thus, they have placed their own political protection before the need for fair taxation and economic development, which suffer immeasurably due to an obsolete assessment baseline.

Until Wednesday, their "education" efforts had consisted of scare-mongering. While maintaining a tax base that gives tax breaks to owners of highly valuable property, they publicly have shed tears over the potential impact of a reassessment on older, lower-income residents.

Given that many taxpayers already incorrectly assume that a reassessment would result in across-the-board tax increases, a referendum to approve one already is a long shot. But that's not enough for the nongoverning commissioners.

Shamefully loaded question

Wednesday, Cummings and O'Malley approved the actual referendum question, a poison pill that is every bit as farcical as their refusal to take responsibility: "Shall the Lackawanna County Commissioners incur debt not to exceed $12 million (Twelve Million) Dollars solely for the purpose of conducting a countywide revision of assessment so that all real estate within the county will be assessed at a predetermined ratio of 100% of a new base-year value?"

The commissioners have no basis for the $12 million figure. Their chief of staff, Andrew Wallace, conducted some sort of survey and concluded that a reassessment would cost somewhere between $5 million and $13 million. There were no actual experts to estimate the cost.

A reassessment has begun in neighboring Monroe County, which is larger geographically than Lackawanna County and has about 103,000 properties, compared with 101,000 in Lackawanna. Its cost, under the adopted ordinance, is between $6 million and $7 million.

Likewise, there was no expert examination of the scope of a potential reassessment, thus no working model to even determine the appropriate "predetermined ratio," which ultimately goes to determine actual property tax millage rates for local governments and school districts. Why 100 percent? In recent reassessments across the state, predetermined ratios tended to range between 35 percent and 50 percent.

Two property tax referendums

Just after the commissioners punted to residents, the state Legislature authorized a statewide referendum on property taxes that also will appear on the November ballot. If passed, it would enable local governments to alter their "homestead exemptions" beyond current limits, potentially even eliminating property taxes (although few would be able to do so as a practical economic matter). So, Lackawanna County voters will face two property tax referendums in November.

Commissioner Jerry Notarianni moved Wednesday to delay the local referendum until next May's primary, which would be wise for several reasons.

First, it would provide more time for the commissioners and other interested parties to educate the public on reassessment.

And, the results of the state referendum might offer some clues on how to help the very taxpayers whom O'Malley and Cummings claim to be helping in their ham-handed sabotage of local reassessment.

Cummings, to her credit, actually thought Notarianni's idea was sound. When she appeared to favor a delay, O'Malley panicked and called for a patently illegal closed executive session, at which he and his minions obviously applied the rhetorical rubber hose to Cummings. She emerged and meekly acquiesced to the loaded referendum language.

She should reconsider. Notarianni should press the issue again and this time, Cummings should agree to the delay. Reassessment is about Lackawanna County's future beyond whether Patrick O'Malley gets another term.

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(c)2017 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

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