Brown Should Use Political Capital To Fix Wilkes-Barre’s Tax-assessment Mess
George Brown has seven long months to ponder his agenda for leading the City of Wilkes-Barre. The victor of last week’s Democratic mayoral primary over incumbent Tony George is virtually assured to win office in November as no one ran in the Republican primary. In those months, Brown should consider doing something bold that mayors of Wilkes-Barre have avoided for decades — updating the city’s property assessments. The city last valued properties for tax purposes roughly half a century ago and, unlike every other municipality in Luzerne County, declined to adopt the assessments calculated by the county in a mass reassessment about a decade ago. Those county assessments continue to be valid, virtually matching each property’s fair market value, according to data collected by the state, ensuring that property owners are taxed fairly. In contrast, market factors over the past 50 years have warped Wilkes-Barre’s assessments. Last year, Citizens’ Voice Staff Writer Steve Mocarsky surveyed several properties in the city and found wide variations in assessments, meaning many city residents are paying more than they should and others are paying less. Moreover, city officials have acknowledged that commercial properties as a class are being overtaxed when compared to private homes. It would be simple for the city to adopt the county’s values for city properties, which are already being used to calculate county and Wilkes-Barre Area School District taxes. And it’s not only an issue of fairness. A revamped tax system could improve the city’s housing market by making new construction more attractive and spur economic development by taxing businesses more fairly. The adoption of the county figures could not be used as a hidden tax increase as state law requires reassessments to be revenue neutral, meaning the taxing body must adjust tax rates so that the total revenues raised do not grow in the year after a reassessment. Brown was non-committal about adopting the county assessments in his meeting with our editorial board earlier this month, saying he would have to study the issue. But there are some council members and candidates receptive to an assessment change and Brown, who defeated George by a 3-1 margin, will enter office with plenty of political capital and four years to allow any political fallout to wane. So Mr. Mayor-to-be, you have seven months to study up. Do the right thing and fix this inequitable system.