County votes to raise taxes

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After running a yearlong campaign repeatedly saying he kept real estate taxes from increasing, Allegheny County Executive-elect Rich Fitzgerald praised county council members for approving a hike in real estate taxes.

“I know that it was a difficult decision, but I stand with many leaders of our community in commending the members for recognizing that increasing the millage was something that had to be done,” he said in a Dec. 6 press release.

RichFitzgerald
RICH FITZGERALD

The 1-mill property tax increase, which Democratic council members said was needed to save county services, would raise county tax bills $100 for properties of $100,000. It represents a 21 percent tax increase. Meaning anyone paying $500 last year will pay $105 more.

Though the tax hike would stave off millions of dollars in cuts Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato made in his proposed 2012 budget to the Community College of Allegheny County and the Department of Human Services, it may violate the state anti-windfall law.

The state prohibits the county from receiving more than a 5 percent increase in property tax revenues the first year that property owners pay taxes on newly assessed properties. New property assessments will be sent to homeowners for 2012. The county’s revenue from property taxes in 2011 was $282.9 million.

But since it isn’t known whether overall property values will rise or fall, both Fitzgerald and council Solicitor John Cambest said there is no problem with a court challenge to the tax hike.

Combest said while evaluations are nearly complete in Pittsburgh and Mt. Oliver, assessors are still looking at suburban properties and there is no telling exactly when they will finish.

Fitzgerald said the county “gets sued all the time.”

“We may end up in court. That’s just part of the process,” he said. “I think council acted responsibly.”

For his part, Onorato stands by his original budget without the tax increase, but said he would not hold up council’s budget, especially since the 11-4 vote approving the millage increase is veto-proof.

On Dec. 12, however, the plot thickened again when Onorato said the county would sue because Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick’s order to complete city and Mt. Oliver assessments before the others does not allow residents there the same time to file informal appeals.

Fitzgerald said he supports Onorato’s lawsuit.

“I’d be doing the same thing. Dan’s right because it violates the uniform tax code to pick which municipalities get hurt first,” he said. “As for the two tax bills. All this does is sew chaos and confusion. What’s disruptive isn’t an incremental increase in taxes, but the assessments. If these municipalities and school district want more money, they should adjust their rates instead of blaming the county.”

At the same time, Wettick moved to require two tax bills be sent to county property owners so municipalities and school districts can pass their budgets on time.

The first “installment” would require payment of half the tax bill, based on this year’s value. The second bill, would likely be lower, compensating for the new millage rate and would avoid violating state windfall protections.

Fitzgerald could not be reached, by New Pittsburgh Courier deadline, for comment on either Wettick’s order to split county tax bills or Onorato’s lawsuit.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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