County council heads toward tax hike

Party-line vote restores funding for CCAC, children

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A tax hike appears likely for Allegheny County property owners next year after a county council committee recommended raising the real estate millage rate.

Members of council's budget and finance committee split along party lines on Tuesday, with five Democrats voting for the 1-mill tax increase and two Republicans voting no.

The committee divided on those same lines for a related vote to recommend approval of a $784 million operating budget for 2012.

The tax ordinance, the operating budget bill and two related spending plans will go before full council Tuesday for a final vote.

If the tax-rate increase to 5.69 mills is approved by a two-thirds majority of council, the owners of a property assessed at $100,000 will see their county tax bill rise $100, from $469 this year to $569 next year.

It would be the first millage increase under the 12-year-old executive-council form of government. Under the county charter, the ordinance to increase the tax rate would require a minimum of 10 votes on the 15-member council. Democrats hold an 11-4 advantage there, which means the measure could pass without any GOP support. Nine of 11 Democrats on council are co-sponsors of the tax-rate increase and budget bills.

The operating budget recommended by the finance committee is $54 million larger than the $730 million comprehensive financial plan proposed by county Executive Dan Onorato. His plan called for a 5 percent cut in county spending next year and would have avoided a property tax hike.

Mr. Onorato's proposed budget, however, included deep cuts in spending for human services and the county's contribution to Community College of Allegheny County. Those reductions brought standing-room-only crowds to council's budget hearings earlier this month. Almost all of the 100 people who spoke at the lengthy sessions asked council to restore money for CCAC and for children, youth and family programs.

Councilman William Robinson, chairman of the finance committee, several times has described Mr. Onorato's version of the operating budget as "dead on arrival," and on Tuesday his committee appeared to bury it.

Although Mr. Onorato is a Democrat, his belt-tightening budget had the support of GOP members of council but little or no backing from members of his own party.

County Executive-elect Rich Fitzgerald, who will take office in January, has thrown his support behind Mr. Robinson's version of the budget and the accompanying 1-mill tax hike.

County Treasurer John Weinstein on Tuesday backed the plan as well. He wrote that "I am quite certain, that council ... has cut the operating budget to the absolute maximum and additional cuts will, undoubtedly, reduce the vast array of professional services the taxpayers have come to expect, realize and truly deserve."

Under the county charter, the executive proposes financial plans, but council has the last word on taxes and budgets.

The spending plan heading for a final vote next week would restore $19 million in funding for human services programs and would provide $25 million next year for CCAC.

Mr. Onorato's budget would have reduced the county's contribution to the community college from $23 million allocated for 2011 to $16 million next year. His proposal to cut $5 million in local matching dollars for human services programs would have meant the additional loss of $17 million in state assistance for those programs.

Republicans on council proposed borrowing an extra $5 million next year as a way to head off the human service cuts without raising taxes. A budget amendment, proposed by Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, would have increased a proposed 2012 bond sale from $46 million to $51 million. The additional money would have been transferred to next year's public works department budget, where it would be used to pay for long-term activities or projects. That switch would have freed up $5 million in the public works budget that could have, in turn, been shifted to human services programs.

His amendment failed along a party-line vote.

An $11 million countywide property reassessment is almost complete, and it adds additional complexity to next year's budget situation. At current assessment rates, one mill of property tax brings the county about $55 million. If the total value of county real estate increases dramatically under reassessment, council may not need an entire extra mill to balance next year's proposed spending plan.

In any case, state law limits property tax increases in an assessment year to no more than 5 percent. The proposed one-mill increase is equal to a 21 percent jump in the tax rate, meaning it would need court approval.

Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159.


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