n a state Department of Revenue list of who owes taxes, Blair County residents, businesses and former businesses are on the hook collectively for $5 million, based on 679 liens filed against them.
That puts Blair County at the top of the list, when compared to the range of $1.48 million to $3.04 million owed by residents and businesses in Pennsylvania's seven fifth-class counties with populations between 90,000 and 144,999.
When compared to amounts owed by those in neighboring Bedford, Cambria, Centre, Clearfield and Huntingdon counties - ranging from $674,489 to $3.64 million - Blair's $5 million tops the list again.
Amounts assigned to taxpayers reflect their debts to the state, plus interest and penalties, filed as a lien against their property in their respective counties, Revenue Department spokeswoman Maia Warren said.
"The lien is put in place to protect the state's interest," she said.
Since 2006, the Revenue Department has used the Internet to expose the names of some delinquent taxpayers. The list originally included only employers who owed back withholding and sales tax payments.
In August 2010, the state expanded the list to include all individuals and companies with liens filed against them since July 1, 2009. The state has since kept its promise of updating the list monthly.
"By naming names online, we hope to shame tax scofflaws into paying their fair share," then-Revenue Secretary C. Daniel Hassell said. "We don't like to have to embarrass taxpayers into complying with the law, but these tax delinquents leave us no choice."
At the time of the August 2010 announcement, the website identified 39,324 liens filed against Pennsylvania taxpayers or their businesses who owed $233 million to the state. The most recent posting, showing those who owe the state as of April 1, identifies 88,416 liens, with $747.6 million owed in back taxes.
Despite the substantial increase, the desire to post the list and keep it updated remains important to the department, now headed by Secretary Dan Meuser, a Gov. Tom Corbett appointee.
"The department believes there's value in the list," Warren said. "Often the most effective enforcement effort with regard to the lien list is the threat of being publicly named, rather than the list itself."
By posting the list online, taxpayers can make informed choices about whether they want to support a business or individual not paying its fair share of taxes, she said.
"For example, would a resident want to frequent a restaurant with a history of charging its customers sales tax but not remitting that to the state?" Warren asked.
Warren also said that since the 2010 posting of the expanded list, nearly 16,000 liens were satisfied, producing $78.8 million in overdue tax liabilities.
Blair County's list
Blair County's list of delinquent taxpayers includes a long list of businesses, some operating and some closed.
William Bickel of Hollidaysburg, owner of Bickel's Surplus and Bickel's Supplies, is the largest Blair County debtor on the state's list.
As the business owner, Bickel has a lien of $619,775 for sales, employer or "use tax," which is the state's reference for goods or services used or consumed in Pennsylvania without payment of taxes, typically to an out-of-state vendor, Warren said.
Bickel did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Developer P. Jules Patt of Hollidaysburg is on the list, as owing $218,951 to the state as the responsible party in connection taxes due from RRP Recreation Limited Partnership of Hollidaysburg.
The list also shows the RRP partnership, through additional liens related to sales, employer and use taxes, owing additional amounts totaling $422,636. Plus, the state names Patt as owing the state $47,634 for the Atherton Street Partnership and his late wife, Pamela, as responsible for $22,924 on behalf of the RRP Recreation Limited Partnership.
Patt, contacted by phone and email, declined comment about the accuracy of the amounts or payment arrangements.
In a 2005 ruling by the state Supreme Court reinstating Patt's law license, he was recognized for having downsized his real estate development to a "much smaller, but better controlled" level after accumulating a large amount of debt while developing apartment projects through the Farmers Home Administration.
The list also names businesses and/or owners who are no longer in business.
For instance, Joe's Place of Vail, a restaurant owned by Todd and and Thomas Templeton, owes multiple sales, employer and use tax payments to the state, totaling $184,153. But the restaurant has been closed since January 2010, and the owners filed bankruptcy.
Closing doesn't relieve a business of tax payments or mean that there are no assets for the commonwealth to collect against, Warren said. If the business goes up for sale, a sale cannot be completed until the lien is satisfied, she said.
If the business files for bankruptcy or goes through other proceedings indicating that a tax debt cannot be paid, the debt remains intact.
Only the Attorney General's Office has the authority to write off tax liability, Warren said.
Cigarette tax debts
Blair County's list of delinquent taxpayers also includes 19 people who have failed to collectively pay $86,764 in cigarette taxes.
Individually, the amounts owed range from $909 to $9,800, based on the tax, plus subsequent interest and penalties.
"When I die, they can take it out of my estate," said a 63-year-old Altoona woman who owes more than $6,000 in cigarette taxes and asked that her name not be published. "I don't have the money, and I don't want my neighbors knowing my business."
She said the state sent her a letter about three years ago about the taxes owed.
"I bought the cigarettes online for my husband, and I guess I didn't see the small print," she said.
The woman said she bought the cigarettes from an Indian reservation in New York state, which had advertised much lower prices than she would pay locally. She said she did not know that she was required to pay taxes.
"If I would have known, I guess I wouldn't have bought them that way, because they wouldn't have been so much cheaper," she said.
Under the federal Jenkins Act of 1949, vendors that ship cigarettes into another state are required to release information about the purchases to state taxing authorities. But not all vendors were doing that when Pennsylvania initiated a crackdown in 2007 and sent 4,300 letters to cigarette buyers, asking them to remit cigarette tax.
Those who ignore requests for payments risk being on the Revenue Department's lien listing.
What other states do
Pennsylvania isn't the only state using the Internet to post the names of those who owe taxes.
At least 19 states put the names of delinquent taxpayers online, the Wall Street Journal reported in October, after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring the suspension of driver's licenses for its worst delinquents.
"If you don't pay your California taxes, you can't drive," legislator Henry Perea, bill sponsor, said.
In Minnesota, tax delinquents risk losing the ability to rent a booth at the state fair.
In Louisiana, residents with tax debts greater than $500 may not be able to renew their hunting and fishing licenses.
Last year, Pennsylvania introduced a Licensee Responsibility Program that is described as part of an ongoing effort "to ensure those that receive commonwealth benefit, either through state contracts or licenses issued by commonwealth agencies, are compliant with state tax obligations."
As examples, Warren named state liquor licenses, banking licenses, insurance licenses and professional and occupational licenses.
Those will be granted or renewed, she said, only for those who are compliant with state obligations.
In addition to posting the online list of taxpayers facing liens, Warren said the department can garnish wages from individuals, refer cases to collection agencies that impose additional fees of up to 39 percent or refer cases to the state Attorney General's Office for further enforcement.
For the 2012-13 fiscal year, the department is considering an enhanced enforcement plan that would require obtaining legislative authority to freeze bank accounts of delinquent business taxpayers and initiate a process to claim what's owed, similar to wage garnishment of individuals, Warren said.
Those with questions about the liens and/or the amounts owed have the option of appealing to the state Revenue Department.
In November, the state began to accept requests for compromises that Meuser described as an important step toward fulfilling Corbett's promise of reforming the tax-appeal process to make it more taxpayer-friendly.
For a compromise to be considered, state officials said it must illustrate doubt regarding liability or promote effective tax administration.
To propose a compromise, petitioners must submit a written request to the Board of Appeals, using forms available at www.revenue.state.pa.us.
Before Pennsylvania posted the expanded list of taxpayers with liens in August 2010, it offered a 54-day Tax Amnesty program for delinquent taxpayers, waiving 100 percent of the penalties and 50 percent of the interest owed, in exchange for payment.
The program brought in $261 million, state revenue officials said.
That was the second of two amnesty periods that Pennsylvania lawmakers agreed to offer taxpayers, Warren said.
"And they were 14 years apart," Warren said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.