Tax Collector Robert Cairns sums up a key problem with the state's elected local tax collector system succinctly: anyone can run.
The Governor's Center for Local Government Services' "Tax Collector Manual" states the qualification requirements in a single paragraph: "There are only minimal qualifications for candidates for local tax collector. In third class cities, the city treasurer must be a competent accountant, 21 years of age or more, and a resident of the city for a year before the election. Status as a public accountant or certified public accountant is not necessary; an individual can be a qualified accountant through training and experience. In first class townships, the only qualification is being a registered voter of the municipality. In boroughs and second class townships, the tax collector must have resided in the municipality for one year before the election and continue to reside there during the term of office."
That means tax collector candidates for most of the municipalities in Cumberland County need only to have lived in the municipality for a year. Candidates in the first class townships of East Pennsboro, Hampden, Lower Allen and Upper Allen must be a registered voter of their respective townships.
According to the county’s bureau of elections, a potential candidate for tax collector needs only 10 signatures on a petition to appear on the ballot.
Though Cairns holds a degree and worked in the accounting field, he said no accounting experience is necessary for those seeking the office, despite the sizable sums of money tax collectors can handle. Cairns collects more than $20 million a year in taxes, with $17 million going to South Middleton School District and the rest to the township and county.
“I have to account for every bill that’s paid and every bill that’s not paid,” he said.
Like Cairns, Hampden Township Treasurer Michael Langan came to the tax collector position from an accounting background. In first class townships, like Hampden, the elected local tax collector is called a treasurer.
Langan said he handles more than $30 million in tax payments for the county, township and Cumberland Valley School District.
However, there is more to determining the success of a tax collector than his or her pedigree in
“There’s an awful lot of good tax collectors out there that may not have accounting training, but they’re doing a good job,” Cairns said.
One tax collector without accounting training is Silver Spring Township’s Debra Basehore Wiest, who was appointed to her position 30 years ago when the previous tax collector retired mid-term. Her degree was in education, but had experience in banking when she took the office.
Wiest offers no excuses for “bad apple” tax collectors who have faced investigations, but said it is possible for someone to get the required 10 signatures, be elected to the position and find themselves “in over their heads” upon realizing what the job entails.
Langan said the general assembly should follow tax collectors’ requests to require potential candidates to pass a test just as candidates for district magistrate must pass a qualification test to appear on the ballot.
“Education doesn’t mean you’re honest, but it shows you’re interested,” Wiest said.
The assembly stopped short of making the training classes and qualifying test a requirement. A 2001 act encouraged tax collectors to take part in a training program and test to become qualified tax collectors. Qualified tax collectors must take six credits of continuing education classes each year to maintain the status.
Cairns said the program was “a step in the right direction.”
He also advised current tax collectors to take advantage of seminars presented by the Pennsylvania Tax Collector Association held throughout the state to help tax collectors keep up with information on issues such as technology and the tax code.
The lack of an age requirement was also a concern. Wiest once faced a teen in an election, which she won, and Cairns said he had concerns about former Carlisle Borough Tax Collector George Hicks Jr. when he heard Hicks was 21 years old.
Tax collectors, he said, should be a little bit more mature and have some experience.
Cairns also questions the idea of tax collector being an elected position at all.
“I’ve always felt that maybe it should be an appointed position,” Cairns said. “The least you should do is a background check and a credit check to run for this office.”