NORTHAMPTON COUNTY, PA A Northampton County employees union and County Executive John Brown agree on at least one thing: They both think that Easton’s commuter tax stinks.
In a lawsuit that mirrors one already filed by Brown’s administration, the Northampton County Deputy Sheriffs Association is suing to block an 11 percent increase in the income tax that the city levies against people who work in Easton but live elsewhere.
Of a union of 67 members, 65 reside outside of Easton and would be hit by the tax hike, said the suit filed in Northampton County Court by lawyer Christy Schlottman. It argues that City Council is illegally taxing nonresidents at a rate greater than Easton citizens, and cites a Scranton case in which a similar levy was struck down by a judge.
Easton’s increase, approved in November, aims to raise $400,000 to meet ballooning pension obligations. It ups the nonresident commuter tax to 1.95 percent, from 1.75 percent.
Easton officials say the tax passes legal muster and has long been permitted by state law. They also maintain that residents and nonresidents are, in fact, paying the same share of taxes.
Easton residents shoulder a 1.45 percent earned income tax and the Easton Area School District levies an additional 0.5 percent. Added together, that equals the amount that nonresidents must pony up, officials say.
In early December, Brown’s administration also sued Easton over the tax hike. The deputies’ lawsuit, filed last week, echoes those claims — with both suits also taking aim at the tax as a whole, arguing that it illegally targets nonresidents and violates the state constitution.
The stakes are high, considering that the commuter tax altogether raises $2 million a year for Easton, an amount the city could not replace if the tax was tossed by a judge, Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said.
But Panto insisted he is isn’t worried about that prospect.
“If we would lose, it would be throwing out a state law that’s been on the books for 30 years,” Panto said.
The suits will have their first hearing in court on Jan. 9, when a conference before President Judge Stephen Baratta is scheduled.
Panto said Easton has asked that the county’s bench recuse itself from the case, considering that the judges work in the city and would be affected financially by their own ruling. Of the county’s nine judges, all but one — Michael Koury Jr. — live outside of the city, and Panto said Koury could also be seen as having a potential conflict, given his residency.
County Court Administrator Jill Cicero said the bench asked the Supreme Court to appoint an out-of-county judge, but was turned down. Baratta has since sent a letter to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts further explaining the request, but will be handling the matter unless an outside judge is assigned by the state courts.
From The Morning Call