Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Real Deal

It isn't always easy finding the right people to run for positions as public servants, folks willing to spend hours of their time campaigning and, if successfully elected, sitting in meetings, balancing budgets and listening to angry residents. It also takes someone who doesn’t mind being stopped at the gas station, WaWa or grocery store when a resident has an urgent sewer line question or a traffic issue about which they urgently need to vent.

These are the positions that form the backbone of our Republic, the local political equivalent of first responders to so many of our basic issues such as property taxes, trash collection, zoning, infrastructure improvements, and public recreational facilities.

Some communities struggle to find such individuals. While that’s seldom, if ever, been an issue in Lower Providence, one thankless position in particular can be a challenge, where a significant number of the office’s dealings with the public may not be pleasant and some may be downright hostile. That is the post of tax collector. 

Lower Providence and Methacton School District have had good fortune in that tax collector Kirsten Deal fulfills those duties for us. Deal, the first and only Democrat elected here in many years, was first elected in 2005, beating Republican Doug Hager, and was unopposed in her re-election bids in 2009 and 2013.  She succeeded a longtime Republican who’d held the post for the preceding 48 years, Republican Robert Love (Love just passed away this past May).

In an unusual twist, in the 2005 race for tax collector, Love endorsed Deal over the endorsed Republican candidate as his replacement.

Deal, a 14-year Lower Providence resident with more than thirty years’ experience in the appraisal, real estate and financial services sectors, has modernized and streamlined the post since her election. And while she makes it look easy, the mechanics of separating tax receivables from taxpayers isn’t simple. Mistakes made by tax collectors have the potential to cost landowners within the jurisdiction their property rights, so the stakes are high.

The job is more complicated and time consuming than you’d think, involving issuing tax notices (bills) for three entities: the local municipality (Lower Providence), Methacton School District, and Montgomery County. A fair number of duplicate bills are also requested for those whose mortgage companies pay residents’ taxes out of escrowed funds and for whom the tax invoice never was forwarded by the resident.

It also involves making the deposits of monies received, posting payments to the proper accounts, reconciliations, and a fair amount of reporting – monthly to Montgomery County, LP and Methacton, and annually with the County. Funds are usually remitted to each taxing authority on a biweekly basis.

In addition, tax collectors are responsible for notifying the county sheriff of any unpaid taxes outstanding against any property advertised for sheriff’s sale, and providing certifications for real estate sales settlements.

The timing of when tax bills must be printed and mailed, and funds remitted, means Deal works a lot of dates most folks consider holidays or prime time for vacations, and sometimes on weekends or until late at night. “Accuracy and timeliness are the most important parts of this job so that those [taxing] institutions can get their money in on time and pay their bills”, said Deal. Some locally elected tax collectors collect their fees and outsource the work to a third party, but Deal is one of a few who still does all the work herself (sometimes assisted by her husband).

The only local taxes for which collection is outsourced to a private third party is the Earned Income Tax (EIC, or ‘occupation tax’), charged at 1% on income – half for the township and half to the school district); the per capita tax ($15/yr, $5 to LPT and $10 to Methacton); and the ‘local services’ tax ($52 per person/yr) which Berkheimer Associates of Berks County collects.
According to the Tax Collector’s Manual published by the PA Governor’s Center for Local Government Services, Pennsylvania tax collectors' salaries are based on a percentage of the total dollar amount of the bills they process, and the pay can range from $1,200 to $100,000, depending upon the size of the municipality and school district. In our area, Deal is paid a dollar amount per invoice issued ($3 each from both LPT and Methacton for approximately 7500 households and 500 businesses – with lesser amounts for subsequent delinquent tax bills) so what Deal earns to process our tax work is firmly in the middle of that range. The County also pays a fee per invoice.

The post comes with no health benefits or retirement plan. Tax collectors have to find other ways to cover those costs out of their earnings.
The compensation (fees and expenses) local tax collectors are paid can only be charged if their municipalities enact an ordinance authorizing them to do so and cannot exceed 5% of invoices issued. This amount is to include reimbursement for all billing expenses of the tax collector other than bonding, printing, postage and envelopes. LPT has authorized up to $1500 per year for printing and envelopes upon receipt of proof of the actual expenditure for these items. There is a separate reimbursement for the costs of bonding and postage upon receipt of the actual expense for those items. By law tax collectors must maintain performance (surety) bonds, so that if they don’t perform, the entity owed tax monies can collect against it. The cost of the bond premium is paid by the taxing districts in an amount proportionate to their share of the total annual tax bills.

While the need to tap a bond is rare, this has become necessary in neighboring Upper Providence Township, where their former tax collector, Beverly Noll, appears to have failed to fulfill her duties due to illness. While she’s since been replaced in the 2013 election, Spring-Ford School District and Montgomery County (Upper Providence itself has no township tax) are trying to clean up the mess, and the County has seized Noll’s records to figure out if there was any improper disposition of funds, determine who has paid versus who has not, and help reconcile those who claim they’ve paid with a stack of undeposited checks found in Noll’s office (more here and here). 

Since she was first elected, Deal has introduced improvements to the function, adding Saturday hours at her desk at First Niagara Bank in Audubon, keeping extended hours during tax deadline dates, purchasing an updated Windows-based tax program which utilizes bar codes on invoices to automate and speed up tax processing, and purchasing bulk postage instead of using postage stamps. She even swapped out an ancient dot-matrix printer she inherited in the job for a state-of-the-art laser printer. She says she is proud that she’s delivering more service for less money. Her website is

Overall, Deal enjoys the job, although her greatest frustrations include not hearing from people until there is a serious problem, people coming into the bank to pay taxes outside of her published hours of availability, and calling her office when there is really an issue with their banking institution or mortgage holder. All in all, though, she enjoys providing such a critical service despite the occasional headaches. I think she’s doing a phenomenal job in keeping a reliable cash flow coming in to Lower Providence’s and Methacton’s coffers. At the end of the day, residents in LPT and Methacton really are getting the best ‘Deal’ possible.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

It truly is a thankless job. I remember chatting with Mr. Love up at the Township building - back when the township provided free space to the tax collector - and he sure had some "angry taxpayer" stories to tell. It was good that he had the LPPD right downstairs.

I do appreciate the modernization Ms. Deal has brought - the installment payments make it much easier. Thanks for the story!