Thursday, February 6, 2020

Council needs to make tough decisions on projects, be proactive on delinquent taxes

Columbia Borough Council needs to make some tough decisions on projects and be more proactive in collecting delinquent taxes. That was the message from interim borough manager Candie L. Johnson at Tuesday night's council work session.

Johnson said she found 20 projects currently on the books and noted that borough funds are limited to those projects. "You're going to have to make some serious decisions on these top 20 projects, what can stay and what's gotta go," Johnson told council. She noted that although the current council didn't start the projects, the items are nonetheless in the budget and need to addressed. Johnson reminded councillors that the previous council allocated funds for the projects, and because the funds are now tied up, "There is no more let's do this, let's do that."

Johnson pointed out the large commitment to the market house project voted on by the previous council. "They made that decision," Johnson said. "That's the way you gotta go." But Johnson said some things on the list must be pushed back or eliminated. She urged council to prioritize projects and decide which ones they can and can't do. "We're in a situation - we can't borrow any money. We got to figure out how to do what we have to do. And they're going to be hard, tough decisions for you guys. Really tough decisions to make."

Johnson also noted that some items were being paid from the borough's general fund that shouldn't have been. "The general fund needs love," she said. "There's a lot of things that we're paying in the general fund that shouldn't be paying in the general fund." Johnson said she found $120,000 that was paid out of the general fund that should have been paid out of a different fund. She said $125,000 can now be put back into the general fund.

Delinquent taxes, liens, and "past dues"
Johnson also told council it needs to be more proactive in collecting "past dues," liens, and delinquent tax payments to help with revenues. Historically, municipalities would simply impose a lien on a property, which in turn could delay getting the money for years. Borough solicitor Evan Gabel said council needs to develop a strategy for collecting liens. "Sometimes they'll sit out there for a long time," he said.

Similarly, delinquent taxes can delay funds needed by the borough for operating expenses. "It's something that we really need to look at and make sure we're getting our money on a timely manner and we're being really enforceable with what we can and cannot do to get our tax dollars," Johnson said. "I think you have a lot of tax dollars stuck."

Johnson noted that some people aren't paying their taxes on time, and it's not fair to those who do. "When it comes to past dues and liens and stuff like that, I think you need to be a little bit more proactive. It's not fair to the taxpayers who are paying their money," she said. "We're not a savings and loan." Johnson added that services could be scaled back if monies aren't received on a timely basis. "If you don't get the funds you need to provide good service, services are going to have to be cut," she said.

Mayor Leo Lutz explained that a large group of the delinquent taxes stem from businesses. "They're not paying the tax until they absolutely have to, and the reason is they want to keep that capital liquid to do business." Lutz said that although businesses might have no intention of defaulting, they keep the money as long as possible. Lutz recommended sending a letter to delinquent taxpayers as a reminder.

Gabel said that according to state law, a property owner must be two years delinquent before any action can be taken. He cited an example in which taxes are due in 2018-19 and the property is due to go to a "free-and-clear" sale. In that case, the property is safe as long as the owners pay the 2018 taxes. "They game the system," he said.

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