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Sparks Fly at Collingdale Council Meeting Over Tax Audit Plan

Tempers flared between Collingdale Borough Council members this week over a plan to hire a western Pennsylvania accounting firm to find $330,000 in missing property tax collections.

The discrepancy was discovered last December following an audit of tax collections from 2022 by borough auditor George Fieo. The money represents 13 percent of the borough’s tax collections for the year.

The council voted last month for an audit of the entire borough.

But Council President Ryan Hastings suddenly changed course on Tuesday. He put forward a resolution that limited the audit to just the Tax Collector’s Office.

The change astonished councilwoman and former mayor Felecia Coffee. “We went from that to this, for real?” she said.

Hastings said several certified public accountants turned down the Borough’s request for a full audit. Louis Plung and Company offered to review the tax collector’s office.

There’s a nationwide shortage of accountants with The Wall Street Journal reporting that more than 300,000 called it quits from 2019 to 2021. And fewer college students are going into accounting to meet the demand.

Collingdale could get a full forensic audit from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, however. And there are still questions on whether the Borough Council planned to make Tax Collector Diane Hunter a scapegoat for the missing cash.

Coffee and Stephen Zane are the only council members who have publicly said they had spoken with Hunter. She allegedly has a complete record of her activity as tax collector, including emails and any documents that have her signature.

The Tax Collector’s Office is also reviewing events surrounding the missing money. Zane said he was told some of the money had been found.

One part of the problem could be that Collingdale did not change its budget to accommodate adjusted property taxes. According to Coffee, Hunter said the borough has occasionally included tax figures from initial property appraisals in the budget instead of waiting for the property appeals process to play out to get a firm, final number.

“We lose the money that we once had assessed at one million dollars and we have to go with the money that was lesser than,” said Coffee.

Hastings rejected that argument. He said Fieo told him, “That’s not what the case is here.”

Tensions over the audit proposal boiled over during the council meeting. As Hastings and Coffee argued over the limited audit, Hastings said he didn’t want to be interrupted and muttered something under his breath that Coffee took to be directed toward her.

Coffee lashed out. “I’m not your child,” she said. “I don’t disrespect you or your mother. So don’t do me!”

Hastings and Coffee did not respond to emails asking for more information about the confrontation.

That wasn’t the only time that Coffee tangled with Borough Council leadership during debate on the audit.

She and Vice President Stacey Calhoun exchanged words as votes were being counted.

“Just make sure when you become mayor, everything is correct,” scoffed Calhoun.

“I’m not going to become mayor,” responded Coffee. “Thank you.”

Louis Plung and Company will be paid $15,000 to audit the Collingdale tax collector’s office. The start date of the audit is unknown.

WILLIAMS: Congress Wants to Expand IRS and Give It More of Your Info

Natassia Smick, a mother of two, is working on getting her bachelor’s degree. She and her husband earn around $33,000 annually and depend on $2,000 from the earned-income tax credit to help make ends meet. Unfortunately, instead of getting the tax refund they were owed and relied on, the Smick family was targeted with an invasive audit from the IRS.

Now, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, millions of hard-working, low-income Americans like Natassia could face similarly frustrating audits from the IRS.

The partisan bill rushed through Congress includes more than $80 billion in new funding for the IRS. Among other things, these taxpayer dollars will go toward hiring and training 87,000 new enforcement agents at the IRS to conduct even more audits. Democrats are claiming this expansion would serve to go after tax cheats and billionaires who can afford to pay more. But the facts tell a different story. Just a few months ago, a new analysis of IRS data clearly showed that poor Americans — earning less than $25,000 a year — are five times more likely to be audited by the IRS.

This unprecedented expansion of the IRS is bad enough. But what many people may not know is that this bill also includes millions of dollars for a taxpayer-funded study that will pave the way for the IRS to collect even more financial information from American families. In fact, the bill gives the IRS $15 million to study how the government could start preparing and filing tax returns on behalf of taxpayers. That may seem innocuous, but make no mistake: this provision is the first step to making the government our accountant.

A massive amount of personal information is needed to file a tax return every year and get a full refund. And that information changes from year to year. These are important changes that the government — especially an agency as backlogged and behind as the IRS — will struggle to maintain. If the agency was put in charge of generating and filing tax returns, it’s almost guaranteed that it wouldn’t be accurate, which, in the best-case scenario, means more precious time spent trying to fix their mistakes. That would be a nightmare at an agency that is answering only one in 50 customer service phone calls.

In the worst-case scenario, it would mean not getting the money owed. Millions of Americans who depend on critical tax credits, like Natassia and her family, could miss out on the full refund they are entitled to and rely on to pay their bills. In fact, a recent report from CNBC found that this proposal would make it harder for taxpayers to claim the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, the child and dependent care credit, and more.

And while progressives in Congress rushed to push this clear conflict of interest through, even the IRS itself has said that a government-run system would not be a significant improvement for taxpayers. 

The former heads of the IRS under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump agreed that a government-run tax prep system should not be a priority for the agency. And James McTigue, a director at the independent Government Accountability Office specializing in tax policy and administration, recently  acknowledged that “it’s not 100 percent clear that the IRS could do better or as well as the private companies.”

This massive package, rushed through in the dead of night, has many concerning provisions, but those that expand the IRS and may force taxpayers to turn over even more personal information to the government in exchange for a system that experts acknowledge may not work is alarming. 

Earlier this year, an overwhelming 75 percent of voters across the country said they would oppose proposals just like this, and 60 percent of voters said they would not support elected officials who pushed these proposals through. Members of Congress should remember they work for these voters and shouldn’t make tax season more difficult and even more invasive for hardworking Americans like Natassia.

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VALYO: Republicans Unfairly Attacking Democrat’s Election Wins

In the past two weeks Chester County residents have been subjected to outrageous efforts by local Republicans and their far-right followers to subvert our free and fair election processes and to intimidate, and take over local offices they cannot win in free and fair elections.

Two weeks ago the Voters Services conducted a very informative program outlining the depth and complexity of security systems that ensure our county elections are both open and honest from registration through to certification. At the end of that presentation the “big lie” crowd shouted questions, insulted those they disagreed with and in some cases resorted to profanity.

Just a few days ago the Board of Elections was assailed by this same group making unsubstantiated claims that our county elections are corrupt and demanding a “forensic audit” such as the one done in Maricopa County, Arizona. It should be noted that audit, a farce done by a company with no election audit experience, did not find fraud.

The most recent assault on process and civility came when a group of 10 petitioners, led by Beth Ann Rosica, a leader of the anti-mask group Back to School, filed a petition claiming that the West Chester Area School District board violated the state constitution when it required masks in schools. The state Supreme Court, by a slim 4-3 margin, ruled Gov. Tom Wolf’s mask mandate unconstitutional.

The petitioners overlooked the part of the law that has given schools authority to make decisions concerning the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and parents.

The petition was presented to Common Pleas Judge William P. Mahon. He eventually issued a ruling removing board members Sue Tiernan, Joyce Chester, Kate Shaw, Karen Hermann and Daryl Durnel from the board for voting for masks. However, Mahon did not make his ruling on the merits of the case, but on what he felt was the district’s failure to respond to the petition in a timely fashion.

This past week he rescinded his removal order, agreeing the deadline was confusing. This will allow the case to go forward on its merits, which are non-existent in our view.

Why do we say this is a continued effort to win by threats and intimidation what could not be won at the polls?

In the 2021 board elections Rosica, who came in last in the most recent West Chester Borough mayoral election, and a group she helped form (Students First West Chester) fielded candidates in an attempt to take the board majority away from members she claimed were put in office by liberals and other leftists. Her goal was to “take back” the board in the name of concerned parents opposed to masks and the alleged teaching of “Critical Race Theory.”

One of their candidates, Stacey Whomsley, won a seat, but with 25 percent of the vote in a 5-candidate race. Chester, on the other hand, won with 63 percent of the vote and Fleming with 54 percent.

What we are seeing here is what has become the trademark Republican response to elections they clearly lost. They claim voter fraud or they resort to other means, including threats and intimidation and frivolous lawsuits, to overturn the results. In this case their view of democracy is 10 poor losers controlling who sits on an elected school board.

We are better than this in Chester County, and I hope voters who know better make every effort to go to register, go to the polls, get friends and neighbors to vote and stop this attack on our elections, the core of our democracy, and on our schools.

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