Allegheny County Council OKs 1-mill property tax hike

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Allegheny County Council on Tuesday passed a 2012 budget that avoids cuts in funding for human services and other programs but will require residents to pay more in property taxes.

Council divided 11-4 along party lines to approve a $784 million operating budget and a 1 mill tax increase to pay for it. All Democrats voted for the budget and tax bills and all Republicans voted against them.

The owner of a property assessed at $100,000 would pay an additional $100 in taxes next year as a result of council's action. That number, however, is likely to change for many residents because of the effects of a countywide reassessment now nearing completion. The final tab also would be less for people whose primary residence qualifies for a county homestead exemption that reduces a property's assessed value by $15,000.

The new tax rate is 5.69 mills, up from 4.69 mills. It is the first millage increase under the 12-year-old executive-council form of government.

Voters elect council members to make the best decisions for the county, Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, said. The wise course for council was to fully fund programs that serve children, youth and families, even if it requires a tax increase, she said. She cast her vote in favor of the bills.

Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, urged her colleagues to postpone action on the budget and tax increase to allow two more weeks to find other ways to trim costs or raise revenue.

If a tax increase ultimately were to prove necessary, it could be well below 1 mill and still provide the $5 million needed to get $17 million in state matching funds for human services programs, she said. She voted against the measures.

Although Ms. Heidelbaugh has been attending meetings for several months as an observer, Tuesday night marked her first session as a member of council. Ms. Heidelbaugh in November won two elections. The first was to complete the final weeks of a council term for a member who resigned. In January she will start a four-year term of her own.

The budget council adopted is $54 million higher than the $730 million spending plan county Executive Dan Onorato recommended in October. His spending plan would not have required a tax increase. Under the county charter, the executive proposes financial plans, but council has the last word on taxes and budgets.

Mr. Onorato said in a statement that he still favored his proposal and did not support council's actions. The 11-4 vote in favor of the alternative plan crafted by Democratic members of council provided a margin large enough to overturn any veto by the county executive. "Therefore, the 2012 budget will not be vetoed and will become law without my support and without my signature," Mr. Onorato said. Like the majority of council, he is a Democrat.

Mr. Onorato's successor, Democrat Rich Fitzgerald, had come out in support of the spending plan.

"I applaud county council for their courageous vote this evening," he said in a statement Tuesday night. "I know it was a difficult decision, but I stand with many leaders of our community in recognizing that increasing the millage was something that had to be done.

"With council's vote tonight, services to the disabled, children and elderly in our community will continue to be available to them, as well as other services for our residents in this difficult economy."

About 100 people, almost all of them opposed to Mr. Onorato's proposed cuts, had testified at two public hearings on the budget. Some of them returned Tuesday to support the proposed tax increase.

"Thank you for finding the $5 million [for human services]," Laura Townsend told council. Without that appropriation, all 26 family-support centers in the county would have had to close, she said. Ms. Townsend is director of the county's Family Support Policy Board. The board describes its mission as "to marshal resources and promote public policies to advance a comprehensive prevention agenda that emphasizes the principles of family support."

Mr. Onorato's proposed budget would have cut overall spending by 5 percent next year with much deeper cuts to human services and the county's contribution to Community College of Allegheny County. While 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, the budget passed by council provides $25 million next year for CCAC.

The president and vice president of student government at CCAC's Allegheny campus both urged council to restore the money for the community college. President Steve Plevel and Vice President Angela Elliston said they and their fellow students already contributed more to their educational costs than either the state or the county. Many CCAC students could not afford another tuition hike, they said.

Councilman James Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, said he believed county departments had already cut their budgets to the bone. Any further trimming would endanger public safety and mean higher costs down the road.

Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, said he had polled 200 to 300 of his constituents and the majority told him not to raise the millage rate.

"I was granted my seat on a no-tax-increase platform," he said.

The $11 million county-wide property reassessment is almost complete, and Ms. Heidelbaugh warned that the 1 mill increase passed by council could run afoul of state assessment rules. The increase is equal to a 21 percent millage hike, and state law limits property tax increases in an assessment year to no more than 5 percent without court approval.

County council solicitor John Cambest said council was on firm legal ground in passing the increase for two reasons. Members had no assurance that the new assessment numbers would be adopted for 2012, he said. While it is very likely that the total assessed value of all real estate in the county will rise, council members cannot know what effect the new assessment numbers will have on taxes for the average property owner, he said.

Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159. First Published December 7, 2011 5:00 AM


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