Libraries to collect more in taxes after county revaluations

They're not subject to windfall rule

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Many Pittsburgh residents will pay more to the Carnegie Library system because of this year's property reassessments and the special library tax voters approved in 2011.

Taxable real estate values jumped 48 percent in the city and 32 percent countywide after the court-ordered revaluations. By state law, the city and other local governments had to slash their 2013 tax rates to avoid a windfall, but the Carnegie and other libraries are not subject to that requirement.

The Pittsburgh library tax is 0.25 mills, meaning someone with a $100,000 home paid the system $25 last year. If that home was reassessed to $150,000 this year the charge would be $37.50. Owners of a $200,000 home now valued at $300,000 would see their library tax bill go from $50 to $75.

Library supporters said the tax collections may jump in the short term, but will be flat going forward.

"People might say that's a windfall and yeah I guess we're going to have to say that's true, because we can't change the rate and we can't change it this year and we can't change it 20 years from now," said city Councilman Patrick Dowd, a Carnegie Library board member and vocal proponent of the tax.

City voters overwhelmingly approved the tax 72 percent to 28 percent in a November 2011 referendum. Ballot questions authorizing such taxes are covered by the state's library code, which allows local taxing bodies only to raise the millage rate approved by voters but not cut it.

"The legislative thinking, to the extent there is such a thing, is they don't want a referendum passed and then have the local government body nullifying or reducing the tax," said Downtown attorney Ira Weiss, the library's legal counsel on the tax.

Estimates diverge widely on how much new money the Carnegie Library will get after reassessment.

The library said it expects $3 million this year; that's a modest increase over the $2.95 million the tax generated last year, according to the city Finance Department, which collects it on the library's behalf. The library expects that in later years it will get $3.75 million, or a 25 percent increase in revenue. The Finance Department, however, estimates the library will get $4.2 million from the tax this year, or a 40 percent increase in line with the 48 percent citywide jump in taxable real estate values.

Library spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes said Carnegie budget staff estimated a 30 percent bump from the reassessments but ratcheted that down due to uncertainty about assessment appeals, refunds and the city's expansion of tax relief measures.

"It's hard to estimate the exact figure right now," she said.

A library windfall prompted some eye-rolling from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration, which had reservations about the tax back in 2011. The city this week lowered its property tax rate by 30 percent and Mr. Ravenstahl has promised to issue taxpayers refunds if collections come in over-budget.

"The mayor strongly believes residents and seniors are already overtaxed and the last thing they need is a tax increase. To that end, he's committed to a policy of returning any extra penny collected from reassessment back to property owners," his spokeswoman Joanna Doven said.

The library tax drive emerged from the Carnegie's 2009 fiscal crisis, when library officials announced plans to close branches in Beechview, Hazelwood, Lawrenceville and the West End, and merge or move those in Carrick, Knoxville and Mount Washington. The city and state stepped in to help avoid the cuts, with state legislation in 2010 giving the libraries 1 percent of revenues from legalized table games.

The Carnegie system will get an estimated $705,000 from the table games this year. The bedrock of the system's $28.7 million 2013 budget comes from the countywide 1 percent sales tax overseen by the Regional Asset District, which awarded the libraries $19,139,000 this year. The figure reflected a 3 percent increase the system requested over its 2012 funding.

Three other Allegheny County municipalities charge library property taxes: Brentwood, Wilkinsburg and Robinson.

Brentwood's 0.5 mills tax is budgeted to generate $208,000 this year after collecting $150,000 in 2012. That is a 28 percent bump in a borough where property values jumped 21 percent. Wilkinsburg's library tax is folded into its 14-mill property tax, though finance director David Egler said more of the millage will be dedicated to library funding this year, boosting its tax support to about $305,000. Robinson manager Aaron Bibro could not be reached.

At the Carnegie, long-term fiscal plans include efforts to boost RAD funding and individual and corporate giving and get legislative approval for contribution tax incentives. The biggest plans are for the library's endowment fund, which officials would like to increase to about $25 million from its current $10 million. The greater level could produce annual operating revenue of $1.25 million.

"The library tax in and of itself isn't going to solve our problems," Mr. Dowd said. "It gave us some time now, but 20 years from now it's not going to be the solution. This is a very long-term project."

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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