Math error forces Allegheny County tax deadline extension

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Allegheny County residents have an extra 30 days to pay their county real estate taxes -- and the county will pay as much as thousands extra -- after a math error that is forcing the treasurer's office to reprint tax bills.

After bills were printed, the county discovered that it had shortchanged residents seeking the homestead/farmstead exemption, which gives property owners a tax break for their primary residence or farm. Officials forgot to adjust the exemption upward, as required by state law, so the county does not receive a revenue windfall as a result of property reassessments.

Without the change approved at Tuesday's County Council meeting to increase the exemption from $15,000 to $18,000, residents would have paid about $14 too much in county property taxes. Along with raising the exemption -- which will result in property owners receiving the usual discount -- council approved moving the deadline for paying discounted real estate taxes to April 30, or May 31 for those paying the face value.

"What we're proposing here to do is to make the necessary adjustment so the exemption matches what is in the budget," county solicitor Andrew Szefi said.

County Council passed the emergency measure without the usual waiting period, but not without grumbles. Some members complained they were rushing through a quick fix without a thorough understanding of how it could affect the overall budget picture.

Council member Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, noted the county isn't giving residents the same deal as before: With an $18,000 cutoff, a property owner will save only $85.14, short-changing them by 21 cents and netting the county an extra $66,000. Mr. Szefi said the difference was due to rounding.

"I feel very uncomfortable that we're going to rush through this legislation without talking about it," Ms. Heidelbaugh said.

Indeed, some question whether the county still is charging residents too much in taxes. Last month, county Controller Chelsa Wagner released a report contending the county had underestimated revenue and needed to send the tax rate lower to meet state law.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald disagreed, but that didn't stop Ms. Wagner's staff from weighing in on the county's homestead exemption mistake.

"While I appreciate that County Council made some effort tonight, this still does not adequately address the windfall problem," she wrote Tuesday evening. "There remains a lack of transparency, and I continue to be very concerned about the haphazard manner in which the County makes major fiscal decisions. This is not good math, and it is certainly not good government."

It costs the county as much as $200,000 to print and mail tax bills.

mobilehome - neigh_south

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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