The rift between the City of Pottsville and Schuylkill County government officials intensified on Wednesday.
During the Public Comment portion of this week’s Schuylkill County Commissioners work session meeting, City Councilman Mark Atkinson demanded payments he believes Pottsville is owed from the County.
Atkinson says Schuylkill County government owes Pottsville more than $46,000 for having its employees at City Hall collecting County property taxes.
The fact that Atkinson made these comments a day after the County indicated to City officials that it indeed intends to move forward with a plan to purchase the former GIANT grocery store property and put a pre-release prison there can’t be ignored.
Pottsville is adamantly opposed to that idea. And sources tell us the City plans to revoke its 40% discount on 115 parking spaces the County leases from Pottsville Parking Authority to make up some of the difference in taxes the City would lose if the County did buy the GIANT property.
Atkinson’s comments sound like the City is coming for more money from the County.
But the County says it has a problem with the $46,000 or so that Pottsville believes it’s owed for collecting the County’s property taxes.
Pottsville Councilman Demands Payments for Collecting County Property Taxes
During the Public Comment portion of Wednesday’s Commissioners’ meeting, Atkinson said, “Back in March, Mr. (Gary) Bender (Schuylkill County Administrator) had requested a meeting with the City and they did not provide us with an Agenda so we were a little bit caught off guard on that but it’s regarding the County tax collection that the City does by state law for the County. The County wanted to dispute what they owed the City. However, in accordance with the state law, the only time that a discrepancy can occur with respect to tax collection and salaries is, by ordinance, prior to the 15th of February, in the year of an election. That did not occur.”
Atkinson says he spoke with Schuylkill County Commissioner Gary Hess about the money Pottsville believes it’s owed.
“He was not aware this money was being withheld. And I’m asking to see when we will receive our compensation for those taxes,” Atkinson said Wednesday.
At first, the Commissioners tried to dismiss the councilman’s comments and move on with the meeting. Schuylkill County Commissioners have a habit of ignoring questions posed to them in Public Comment. That’s not uncommon with many local government boards. They’ll say it’s not a question-and-answer period.
And while they may be permitted to just let people speak and ask questions without providing answers, the “optics” of just ignoring questions is bad.
Commissioners Chairman Boots Hetherington said, following Atkinson’s comment, “Anything else, sir? Thank you for your comments.”
At that point, Hess spoke up, breaking protocol. Though it was difficult to hear because the County can’t conduct a Zoom meeting with decent audio and it sounds like everyone in the meeting room is talking toward a single microphone, it sounds like Hess made a request of fellow Commissioners that Atkinson get an answer on his request after Wednesday’s meeting.
Atkinson, however, didn’t want to wait for an answer.
“Commissioners, if we don’t get a resolution on this, I’m going to ask my counterparts on Council to seek a court resolution. I’d like an answer today,” he said.
The County Rebuttal
That’s when Schuylkill County Treasurer Linda Marchalk jumped in on the call and responded to Atkinson’s demand. She says the County has a beef with how much Pottsville wants for collecting its property taxes and the Courthouse is withholding payments to Pottsville until it comes to an agreement on how much is really owed.
Marchalk said, “My office processes the check requests. We had a contract in our system through Dec. 31, 2019. And because I did not have an updated contract, Finance and the Controller’s office would not authorize those checks. I have been receiving monthly bills, which we have up in my office to process but until I get a contract that authorizes me to do those check requests, we can not do that.”
The Treasurer then said Pottsville is getting too much money to collect the County’s property tax. Marchalk said the County is essentially paying one-third of the salary and benefits of 4 City employees.
“We pay the City of Pottsville $85,000 to collect 9,000 tax bills,” Marchalk said.
By comparison, she said, “I pay 56 other tax collectors $285,000.”
Marchalk says her office is looking into the possibility of her office collecting the County portion of those taxes instead of Pottsville. She also said Pottsville isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.
“During our last meeting,” she said, “The City was supposed to give us job descriptions of each of those staff in terms of what they do because the city also collect garbage and other city tax money and I don’t feel it is proper to ask what they’re charging us one-third because they’re doing more than just collecting County real estate taxes.”
Atkinson didn’t like that response and fired back.
“Linda,” he said, “You can not dispute the salary unless it is on the year of the election, by state law.”
Hetherington, who wanted to keep the meeting moving rather than have this discussion in a public forum, again urged Atkinson to have this discussion outside the public meeting forum.
Hess then urged the Commissioners to “clear this up so we can move forward and not go back and forth.” Hess is also the only Commissioner who’s opposed to the County’s plan to buy the former GIANT property and turn it into a pre-release prison.