Friday, March 23, 2012

The ship is stinking

The ship is sinking. The ship is stinking. Here in Columbia, the ship is a wreck.

Not only are we still reeling from the Market House debacle, now a leviathan of gargantuan proportions has reared its misshapen head: the issue of tax collection in the borough. The questions are so numerous, I hardly know where to begin.

In Lancaster Newspapers' March 22 edition, it was reported that Tom Vecchiolli, our borough tax collector, had suddenly executed a Sarah Palin-esque maneuver, resigning two years into his four-year term, because, according to borough manager Norm Meiskey, “the borough could not resolve an ongoing disagreement over the collection of certain fees.” Allegedly, Mr. Vecchiolli was charging financial institutions a fee when they requested that he research and document tax liability on a given property. His fee was $15 per request - quite reasonable for one's time, effort, and expertise. The problem was, he lacked legal authority to collect such fees, because the borough lacked an ordinance empowering him to do so, and no one in "authority" realized it. According to borough council President Michael L. Beury, as quoted in the article, “The tax collector before him told him he could do it.” Really? Does that mean Mr. Vecchiolli was duly authorized to collect taxes only by the power of his predecessor's opinion? And no one ever checked into this? And is the council president now washing his hands of any responsibility by flippantly blaming it all on hearsay and ignorance of the facts? Little did we know that all along, the borough had been flying by the seat of its pants, buoyed by a cloud of blind assumptions and apathy.

We're also learning the borough had no contingency plan in the event the tax collector was suddenly unwilling or unable to carry out the duties and obligations of his office. According to the article, borough officials now need to learn the tax-collection system and will be unable to collect taxes until April 2. Couldn't someone on staff have been trained as a backup? What if Mr. Vecchiolli had resigned a month later, and the borough couldn't “get it together” until after the first of May, thus burdening taxpayers with a penalty?

The office of the tax collector is an independent entity, and according to the article, “It is unclear how many tax certifications Vecchiolli has processed since taking office in 2010. The borough does not keep track because the tax collector works independently” [italics mine].  In essence, the tax collector seemed to be operating without any official oversight and very little accountability.  If that's the case, the system as it stands is vulnerable to abuse. One would wish for more scrutinization and responsibility when it comes to handling our tax monies.

Tom Vecchiolli has done a disservice to the community by quitting unexpectedly and giving property owners no immediate options for paying their taxes.  Although he might escape serious consequences, taxpayers must now suffer significant inconvenience due to a public official's behavior.  It's not supposed to work that way. He should have completed the balance of his term instead of creating a fog of confusion for residents.  In refusing to carry out the obligations of his office, Mr. Vecchiolli has betrayed the public trust. And so has the borough council, in not being prepared for such an eventuality and then feigning ignorance.

Two items on the agenda for the March 12 council meeting stand out: 
  III.21.g: Consider accepting the resignation of Thomas Vecchiolli as Tax Collector for Columbia Borough effective immediately.  
  III.21.h: Consider revoking Janet Wood's Deputy Tax Collector Authority effective immediately.  
During the meeting, a council member said these two items were rescinded, resulting in a bit of confusion and debate among council members as to whether or not that was the case. At any rate, the two items were not discussed further during the meeting and were not mentioned in the Lancaster Newspapers article. So who is Janet Wood and why was council considering revoking her authority, if they were?  Could she have taken over Mr. Vecchiolli's duties, at least temporarily?  

A final point: if the borough succeeds in being able to collect taxes, why is the office of tax collector needed? Why not eliminate it and put the savings into a general fund or earmark it for a special project?  Better yet, why not return it to taxpayers in the form of a discount or rebate, if that's legally possible?

The citizens of this town deserve better from their elected officials, who are, after all, our public servants.  That means they're here to serve us, not to rule us.  They're here to be informative, not secretive. They're here to clarify, not to obfuscate. They derive their authority to govern from us. I hope they remember those obligations as they steer this leaking ship through troubled waters that they themselves have helped to create. 

And now for some GOOD news . . .

Today in Columbia . . .

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