Where you can (and can't) prepay 2018 taxes in Philly region

Tax Overhaul Local Rush
Gail Trachtenberg and Lewis Eron prepay part of their 2018 property tax bill at the township building in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2017. People across the country have been trying to prepay property taxes before a federal tax overhaul kicks in and caps deductions for state and local taxes. (AP Photo/Geoff Mulvihill)

The week after Christmas is usually a quiet one in the Haddonfield Borough offices, with few phone calls or visitors and employees on vacation.

But this week is different, as hundreds of residents in the South Jersey town rush to beat the clock on federal tax reform by prepaying their 2018 taxes.

Because other employees are off, tax collector Terry Henry has been sitting at his office’s front desk, answering phones and collecting checks. About 159 people came in Tuesday, he said, and he expected that pace to keep up all week.

“There haven’t been lines outside the door, but it’s been constant,” said Henry.

The rush is not limited to Haddonfield — the tax collector in Moorestown said she collected $1.5 million in prepaid taxes on Wednesday alone — and is thanks to the new federal tax bill President Trump signed into law last week.

Under the changes, the state and local tax deduction, a popular write-off in high-tax states and for those who itemize taxes, will be limited to $10,000. So by prepaying next year’s taxes before the end of this calendar year, taxpayers hope to reap the full benefit of the deduction before the new ceiling takes effect.

But, as communities across the country grapple with the issue, the IRS on Wednesday sparked new questions and uncertainty when it issued an advisory warning that prepayments might not be deductible on properties that had not been officially assessed.

That’s likely to further scramble things in places like Haddonfield, where the tax collector has been allowing residents to estimate and prepay their 2018 bills, since they will not receive their invoices for the second half of the year until August.

The news landed late on the same day Gov. Christie signed an executive order instructing state officials to instruct all municipalities to accept all payments postmarked by New Year’s Eve. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did much the same. And in Montgomery County, Md., lawmakers had rushed to pass legislation that would allow prepayment.

But not every town is taking prepayments, and the rush to save money before the year runs out has sparked confusion and frustration in some Philadelphia-area communities. Some Pennsylvania school districts have said they are unable to take early checks. And Montgomery County has declared that none of its municipalities can accept early tax payments.

Meanwhile, just over the border in Delaware County, Radnor Township is accepting prepayments. So is Philadelphia, where officials were quick to remind residents that prepayment there comes with another benefit: A 1 percent discount on the real estate tax.

For Rick Goldstein of Abington Township, attempts to prepay ended in frustration. Eager to pay his 2018 taxes and claim a state and local tax deduction, he calculated his tax bill and was at the township’s offices with his checkbook by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

But the tax collector’s office would not take Goldstein’s check. Instead, he walked away with a letter from the Montgomery County Treasurer’s Office explaining that 2018 taxes cannot be prepaid.

Pennsylvania law allows local tax collectors to take payments once a county gives them the tax rolls at the beginning of the year, John Zurzola, a solicitor for Montgomery County, wrote in a memo to the Treasurer’s Office.

“Such authority remains with the local tax collectors until they settle the following year with the county,” Zurzola wrote. “This process is still incomplete for 2017 and will not begin for 2018 until the settlement of 2017 taxes has been accomplished … sometime in January 2018.”

Lower Merion Township posted a message to residents on its website stating that, in response to “numerous inquiries from residents,” the township’s lawyers reviewed the matter and agreed with the county’s position on state law.

“To me it is the worst kind of bureaucracy possible, where multiple people are going to be willing to give you a pile of cash  … and nobody will take it,” said Goldstein, a doctor.

Only “home rule” municipalities, which have more freedom to pass their own laws that other local governments, can collect prepayments, according to Montgomery County’s memo.

Radnor, a home-rule township in Delaware County, is accepting prepayments through New Year’s Eve if taxpayers appear in person at the township building.

The benefit of prepayment has caused a steady stream of taxpayers to visit the offices of Moorestown Township in recent days. Tax Collector Jennifer DellaValle said that she took $1.5 million in prepaid taxes on Wednesday alone, and the flow of taxpayers arriving to pay “hasn’t stopped.” Last year, she said the township processed a total of just $880,000 in prepaid taxes.

But even prepayment can cause some confusion. In a message on its website, Radnor warned taxpayers that the township “is not providing tax advice” and advised them to contact their own tax advisers. Prepaid taxes are also only estimates — once bills are finalized next year, residents may owe more or they may be issued refunds by the township.

In New Jersey, Christie’s executive order instructing all municipalities to accept prepayment offered some assurance for residents of the state with the highest property taxes in the nation.

“The action I took today will ensure that local governments are flexible and accommodating of their local property taxpayers as we transition to the new federal tax code for 2018,” Christie said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

The governor’s order came after Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said over the weekend that the state should issue guidelines to municipalities to ensure that they take prepayments.

Meanwhile, accountants and lawyers are scrambling to understand the new tax bill and its ramifications so they can advise their clients.

Katherine Jordan, an attorney specializing in tax law with Chamberlin Hrdlicka’s Philadelphia office, said only property taxes can be prepaid under the new bill, which prohibits prepayment of state and local income taxes.

“My fun holiday reading is … going through the bill page by page,” she said.