County ponders the removal of Venango Act
The legislation would not eliminate the county treasurer's position.
By VIRGINIA ROSS
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Lawrence County commissioners are considering inviting members of a state Senate committee to New Castle to discuss pending legislation that would shift property tax collection responsibilities from the county treasurer to the county's 26 municipal tax collectors.
Commissioners said last week that they have questions about the bill and are not prepared to endorse it until they look more closely into the consequences of the change, which would remove the county from the Venango Act.
The Venango Act has been in existence since the mid-1850s and includes Lawrence County as one of four counties where the treasurer is required to collect the county's real estate taxes.
Commissioners said if a meeting were to be arranged, it would be open to the public.
Earlier this year, Democratic state Rep. Frank LaGrotta of Ellwood City introduced a bill that would remove Lawrence County from the Venango Act and shift property tax collection responsibilities from the treasurer's office to municipal tax collectors. The state House passed the bill several weeks ago, but it now sits before the Senate Local Government Committee. The Senate is expected to vote on it this fall.
The Felasco situation
The issue has sparked much discussion among county officials and residents because of a yearlong controversy surrounding county Treasurer Gary Felasco.
Officials have said there is some confusion because some residents mistakenly believe that repealing the Venango Act would result in the elimination of the treasurer's post.
"This would take some of the responsibility from him, but he would still be in office and he would still collect the same paycheck," said Commissioner Chairman Dan Vogler.
Commissioners have accused Felasco of misusing his office. They have repeatedly criticized him for not coming to work and for violating the public's trust. Felasco has not been charged with any crimes, but state police and the state attorney general's office continue investigating him.
Commissioners have said they have not been kept informed of the status of those investigations other than that they are active and ongoing.
Commissioners removed Felasco last year from the county tax claim bureau director's post, an appointed position, after discovering he had not paid his own taxes in several years.
They maintain they do not have the authority to remove an elected official from office. Further, they cannot force Felasco to go to work nor can they withhold his paycheck.
Revised tax collection
In the meantime, state Sens. Gerald LaValle and Bob Robbins, who represent parts of Lawrence County, have asked the commissioners for their opinions on the LaGrotta bill.
Commissioners said before they decide which way to go, they would like to know how much the change could cost the county and whether it would be more effective and efficient than the system in place. Commissioners have said the county's municipal tax collectors, for the most part, appear to favor the change.
If the bill passes, the county would have to comply with it and would not have the option to retain the current system.
Further, commissioners explained, the county's municipal tax collectors would be required to collect county property taxes.
"They wouldn't be able to pick and choose, either," Commissioner Steve Craig said. "It has to be all of them or none of them."
Vogler said he would like committee members to conduct a hearing in the county to allow residents to express their views.
Commissioner Ed Fosnaught said he would like to see what the cost vs. the savings could be with the change.
He suggested bringing in an unbiased organization such as the Pennsylvania Economy League or the Allegheny Institute to complete an evaluation and determine the best course of action for the county.