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When some are more equal than others

By David Hulse
August 21, 2013

Wayne County’s 2005 update of its tax assessment rolls provided more realistic values for county property owners than had previously obtained, but may be costing Lehigh Township property owners in school taxes.

Lehigh, Wayne’s southern-most township, sends its children to the North Pocono School district, which it shares with nine Lackawanna County townships.

Last year, Lehigh residents realized they were paying up to twice as much in school taxes as their neighbors in Lackawanna County.

Taxes in school districts crossing county lines need to be justified as to differences in assessment values, which are impacted by the timeliness of the county’s assessments and actual market values from recent sales. In Pennsylvania, the State Tax Equalization Board (STEB) is responsible for evening things out.

A similar situation was recently resolved in the Wallenpaupack Area School Distict (WASD) between Wayne and Pike counties. According to the WASD, Wayne County’s share of the district tax bill increased when the county’s 2005 assessment update was used in the formula. Wayne now pays about one-third of the WASD tax bill.

Lackawanna County has not updated its tax rolls since 1972, and its rolls show appreciably lower values from that period.

Anthony Magnotta, the township’s attorney, seeking to resolve the problem, wrote to the Wayne Commissioners earlier this month reporting two new problems: that the formula the STEB uses for Lackawanna County is based on the whole county, not just the nine districts in question; and that an attempt to resolve the problem using the state Public School Code “would result in even higher taxes being paid by Lehigh… residents.”

Wayne County Commissioner Wendell Kay, who has been working with Lehigh and state Senator Lisa Baker to correct the problem, says Lackawanna began an update of its rolls several years ago and then stopped. Kay said he and chief assessor John Nolan set up a meeting with Baker to start corrective action by having the STEB “adjust their facts or Lackawanna re-assess.”

Magnotta’s recent letter is asking Wayne County to try once again to mediate between the various parties. Without a resolution, Magnotta quoted a Lehigh resident’s comment, “’Why would you buy a property in Lehigh Township… that pays $6,000 a year in taxes when you can buy a similarly situated home in Lackawanna County and pay only $3,000 per year in school taxes.’ Therein lies the dilemma…. ”

The commissioners took no action on the Lehigh tax issue at their August 15 meeting.