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Wage-tax collector fired amid debate

| Thursday, June 7, 2001

After a heated mix of criticism and testimonials, Collier Township commissioners voted Tuesday to remove Judith Astfalk as wage-tax collector, effective Friday.

Commissioners voted 4-0 to fire Astfalk and appoint township Manager Gary Williard, a certified public accountant, as interim collector of Act 511, or 'nuisance' taxes. Commission President Doreen Ducsay abstained from the vote.

The firing came after officials from Collier and the Chartiers Valley School District said Astfalk was not aggressive in going after unpaid taxes.

Astfalk, who has served as Collier's treasurer and tax collector for eight years, did not attend the meeting but said afterward that she was targeted because of her involvement with the township Democratic Party, which did not support current commissioners in last month's primary.

Act 511 taxes include all those that are not property taxes, such as wage, occupational and mercantile taxes.

As treasurer, Astfalk is responsible for property tax collection. She was appointed by the commissioners to serve as the 511 tax collector, a position that pays $28,658 a year.

She recently received the Democratic nomination for her third term as treasurer.

Problems for Astfalk began earlier this year when Chartiers Valley Superintendent Bernard Sulkowski wrote commissioners asking what they were going to do about discrepancies found in six consecutive tax audits.

Leonard Czarnecki, commission vice president, said commissioners were unaware of the problem because members never saw the results of audits until last year.

After receiving the letter, commissioners asked Williard to look into the discrepancies, which school auditors claimed cost the district $74,000 in taxes.

Williard said the purpose of the evaluation was to determine how effective the appointed collector had been in collecting current and delinquent Act 511 taxes.

In a report dated May 31, Williard said he looked at 59 households from the 1997 state tax listings. Income reported to the state and township was different in 31 cases, totaling $16.9 million in unreported income.

Astfalk maintained the money is not subject to the wage tax and the township will see that when it investigates.

'Believe me, it is not true whatsoever,' she said. 'There were no bad audits. The money's there, it's not taxable income.'

Williard said he sent 31 letters requesting an explanation from the individual taxpayers after Astfalk refused to do so.

About $2 million was determined to be untaxable income from corporations, he said.

Of those who simply have requested to be billed, about $1 million will be collected for the township and school district, he said. There will be penalties and interest as well.

The amount of money owed is still being determined because not everybody has responded.

After 30 days, the township could take the matter to the district justice. The state allows townships to go after those with a 25 percent or more discrepancy, dating back no more than three years.

Williard told the commissioners he saw no evidence of Astfalk seeking delinquent taxes.

Anybody who didn't report his or her income simply got away with it, Ducsay said.

Astfalk denied the accusation, saying that if the township reviewed her files, they would find she has worked to collect delinquent taxes on all taxable income.

Williard said work must be done to enter tax records into the computer system more efficiently, so 1998 state records can be compared to what they have on file.

Astfalk said her office is understaffed and she has asked for help many times, but has not received any. The computer problems were a result of conversion errors that were out of her control, she said.

At the beginning of the meeting, Ducsay responded to results of the election and the accusations made by the Democratic party, noting Astfalk's involvement as chairwoman.

Before the May 15 primary, the Democratic party sent out a letter criticizing the commissioners' budget allocations for recreation and cultural activities in the township and endorsing first-time candidates Sandra Lamb and Jackie Burkhart. Ducsay is a Democrat.

In the election, incumbent Czarnecki, also a Democrat, won a nomination, but commissioners Frank Palombi and Ducsay lost their bids for re-election. Ducsay has been the organizer for many of the township's recreation activities.

'This board has never plotted, schemed, cooked up or manufactured anything,' Ducsay said. 'We are a community sharing common history, social and economic beliefs, but the scheming used by the Democratic Party this primary election was unfounded.'

The audience greeted Ducsay's statement, which went on to attack the Democratic Party's platform, with approval.

'The people have done a good job here,' Collier resident Bert Kaplan said. 'They've moved this township forward.'

But Astfalk said the numbers in the election show the taxpayers support her, and the commissioners are disregarding that for political retaliation.

'We knew it was coming,' Astfalk said.

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