BETHLEHEM, Pa. - City administration officials withdrew a proposed resolution at Wednesday night's council meeting that would have renewed a two-year contract with its current debt collector. However, the attorney for debt collector Portnoff Law Associates tells 69 News that council’s decision was based on outdated and incorrect information.
At the meeting, Bethlehem finance director Dave Brong said the resolution to renew the city's longstanding contract with Portnoff Law Associates to collect delinquent real estate taxes for another two years from city property owners was also scheduled to include delinquent water and sewer bills.
But the administration withdrew the authorization to renew after Bethlehem resident Stephen Antalics distributed copies of a March 2008 Prime Newswire article showing the $5.2 million verdict against Portnoff. Prime Newswire is a service that companies and law firms can hire to help give publicity to a client.
According to Antalics, the article claimed that Portnoff, a law firm specializing in debt collection services, lost a 2008 class action lawsuit filed by Philadelphia property owners for the unauthorized collection of fees, interest, penalties, and legal fees previously forbidden by state courts.
The information in the article may have been true as far as it went, but Portnoff’s attorney Helen Gemmill of McNees Wallace and Nurick LLC in Harrisburg provided 69 News with documentation that the case was appealed to Commonwealth Court and ultimately to Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the lower courts’ decisions on the grounds that the law cited in the class action suit, Act 6, did not apply to the collection of taxes, but to delinquent loans. The court also concluded that even if Act 6 did apply, the $35 fee that Portnoff was charging delinquent taxpayers was a legal fee.
Brong noted that Bethlehem has been using Portnoff for the past 15 years without any complaints of predatory behavior on the part of Portnoff.
Councilman Adam Waldron classified the Prime Newswire story as damaging to Portnoff and fellow councilwoman Olga Negron suggested the matter be investigated more closely by the administration as well as council.
In other business, council announced the 2018 city budget hearings will be held at 6 p.m. at council chambers on Nov. 16, 20, 28, and 29 with a final meeting on Dec. 11 and final adoption scheduled for Dec. 19.
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