When a new tax collector elected himself in a Pa. town, chaos ensued
Jeffrey Cutler got elected tax collector in a Lancaster County town with one write-in vote. Some officials say his poor performance shows how obsolete the position has become.
Jeffrey Cutler is living proof that a single vote in an election can make a huge difference.
Cutler was elected tax collector in 2013 in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County, with one vote — his own write-in vote. Though East Lampeter had not had a tax collector in decades — the county did the job — Cutler insisted he was now an elected official under the law, and began to work as township tax collector.
Cutler made a hash of the job, say local and county officials. Tax revenue he collected was not passed along promptly to taxing authorities. Some taxpayers were billed twice. Others, in arrears, were listed as fully paid. Dozens of fully paid taxpayers were erroneously termed delinquent and referred for collection, tarnishing their credit.
Taxpayers in East Lampeter who went to the location listed on tax bills to settle accounts found themselves before the puzzled manager of a self-storage facility, who was unaware Cutler had set up shop in a rented storage unit.
“It was about an eight-month accounting nightmare trying to figure out what was real and what was not,” said Amber Martin, the Lancaster County treasurer. She and other local and county officials alleged Cutler failed to perform his duties, and persuaded a Lancaster County judge to strip him of office in 2017.
Cutler’s case triggered the introduction of a bill to allow towns to eliminate the “antiquated” tax collector’s position, prompting pushback from the Pennsylvania State Tax Collectors Association, which regards the proposal as an existential threat to an independent elected office. In a hearing on the bill, some legislators, uninterested in curbing the tax collector’s role, suggested the state should require a candidate to get at least 10 votes to get elected.
In East Lampeter, a township of about 17,000 people in the heart of Amish country, the nightmares were only beginning.
Cutler, 64, an electrical engineer who now lives primarily with his elderly mother in a two-story rowhouse in the Overbrook Park neighborhood in Philadelphia, responded to his firing with a torrent of lawsuits, alleging there was a conspiracy to impeach him as tax collector without due process because he is Jewish.
Cutler’s legal filings, in which he acts as his own attorney, variously attempt to link his case to those involving Bill Cosby, former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Soros, the Ku Klux Klan, and others. He said he was inspired by a 2013 dream he experienced while undergoing a medical procedure to challenge the Affordable Care Act on the ground of religious freedom. His lawsuit challenging Obamacare, filed after his election, was dismissed in 2014.
U.S. District Judge Thomas N. O’Neill Jr. last year dismissed Cutler’s suit challenging his ouster as tax collector, characterizing his pleadings as “rambling allegations."
“Mr. Cutler fails to plausibly plead a claim against any of the defendants,” the judge said in a 25-page legal memorandum.
Cutler has responded to adverse court rulings by filing appeals or new legal actions alleging judicial misconduct. He has filed five cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals, which charges a $505 filing fee each time. No lawyers have agreed to represent him, which Cutler said is evidence of the breadth of the conspiracy.
“I didn’t want to be a litigious man," he said. "These people are criminals.”
Cutler said he did not plan to vote for himself when he entered the polling place in 2013 and saw no candidates listed for tax collector. Several other voters apparently had the same idea. Cutler was declared the winner among 17 write-in candidates, each with one vote, after lots were drawn in a tiebreaker.
Under Pennsylvania law, independently elected tax collectors in many towns are responsible for collecting all property taxes for the municipality, school district, and county (some larger municipalities, such as Philadelphia, are exempt). Some towns outsource the work, yet the tax collector’s position still exists and appears on the ballot every four years without any official candidates listed.
While Cutler’s case is extreme, Lancaster County officials say spur-of-the-moment candidates getting elected as tax collector are not uncommon. In the 2017 municipal elections, 22 of 59 tax collectors in Lancaster County won with write-in votes, including 11 in which the winner had one or two votes. In most cases, the winners decide not to do the job after finding out it is more than a ceremonial post, said Martin, the Lancaster County treasurer.
“For a lot of people, it’s like winning the lottery,” she said. “Then they walk into my office and find out what’s involved with the job. The majority decide it sounds like a lot of work for not a lot of pay.”
Tax collectors receive 75 cents for each taxable property upon which they collect taxes, paid by each taxing authority. (If they collect on behalf of the county, the town and a school district, they get $2.25 per parcel — East Lampeter’s 5,465 parcels would generate about $12,300 in fees.) Tax collectors also can charge fees to certify taxes are paid, a document required for real estate sales transactions.
Critics say the system of elected tax collectors is antiquated, reflecting a time predating computers and electronic payments. Until Cutler’s election, many East Lampeter taxpayers were unaware of the post, said Martin.
“What kind of process is it where you can be the only person who votes for yourself, and you can become the tax collector responsible for millions of dollars?” she said.
Martin’s husband, State Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), took up the fight this year by introducing legislation that would allow jurisdictions to eliminate the position of elected tax collector. “This bill gives options to the school districts, counties, and municipalities to choose the tax collection method that best suits their local area,” Sen. Martin said at a hearing in June that he chaired of the Senate Local Government Committee.
Elam M. Herr, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, cited several cases involving incompetent or even criminal tax collectors in testimony supporting the legislation. “Unfortunately, these problems are not unique to East Lampeter, and unfortunately have occurred elsewhere in Pennsylvania,” he said in his testimony.
But tax collectors testified that they perform a valuable customer-service function, and characterized the problems in East Lampeter and other towns as isolated and resolvable by existing laws.
“Centralization can lead to an impersonal system where taxpayers no longer get personalized answers to their tax questions, as they can now with tax collectors,” said Sherry Labs, the tax collector from Plumstead Township, Bucks County, and president of the Pennsylvania State Tax Collectors Association.
Samuel T. Adenbaum, the elected tax collector in Lower Merion Township, worried that allowing some taxing authorities to collect their own taxes would remove a source of income for elected tax collectors, reducing the financial incentive. “I worry that the system is not broken now, and legislation might well break it,” he said.
The legislation did not advance out of committee. Sen. Martin has indicated he will try again in the new year.
For Cutler, the legal battles never end.
Cutler acknowledges that he wanted to remain tax collector because it gave him a platform on which to launch his legal challenge to Obamacare, as well as a later unsuccessful challenge of Pennsylvania’s legislative redistricting case. “I thought it was neat to be an elected official," he said.
On Friday, he filed a new appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, asking it to overturn a District Court dismissal of his case. He acknowledges that many of his lawsuits are assembled from text cut from other lawsuits, which to trained legal eyes may not have a linear connection to his case.
“I’m deeply invested in the Constitution and to religious freedom,” he said, although he acknowledged he did not have strong religious beliefs.
Last year he launched a separate round of litigation after he was evicted from his rented apartment (he was not a property owner in East Lampeter). A Lancaster County Court judge also ordered him to pay the county and the township about $34,000 in legal costs they incurred fighting his lawsuits, along with $16,000 in lost tax revenue because Cutler extended early payment discounts to taxpayers who paid late. Cutler said he has no intention of paying without a legal fight.
Amber Martin said the county controller’s audit of Cutler’s office uncovered substantial mishandling of taxpayer funds, but never alleged that Cutler misappropriated money.
“I don’t think Mr. Cutler is malicious," said Martin, who took over tax collection duties after Cutler was forced out. "I just think he needs help, and it’s not the kind of help I can give.”
East Lampeter leaders came up with a practical solution to the tax collection issue in the 2017 election. The Republican Party nominated a candidate, John W. Shertzer, who was unopposed and got 1,309 votes. Ten candidates each received a write-in vote, including one for Bernie Sanders, one for Hillary Clinton — and one for Jeffrey Cutler.
Shertzer promptly resigned the position and the township assigned the duties to the county treasurer.