Allegheny County tax hike pondered

Would be first time council increased millage in 10 years

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Democrats on Allegheny County Council plan to pass a 1 mill tax increase in early December, raising more than $50 million to help restore recent service cuts and prevent additional cuts in the proposed 2012 county budget, according to supporters of the measure.

The proposed increase would raise the county property tax millage from the 4.69 mills set in 2002 to 5.69 mills, supporters said. As a result, a homeowner with a $100,000 house would pay an additional $100 a year in property taxes.

The proposal has the support of incoming county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who will take office in January.

Cutbacks at the federal and state levels have left council members little choice but to raise taxes for the first time in 10 years, Mr. Fitzgerald said Sunday. Without a tax increase, he said, many local residents will suffer.

"State cutbacks have made it very difficult for local governments to provide the services needed, particularly human services," said Mr. Fitzgerald, a longtime county council member who resigned to run for executive. "These cutbacks are devastating to children, youth and families, and to many human services providers."

Council is expected to take separate votes on the budget and tax increase when it meets Dec. 6.

The state Legislature cut funding for Allegheny County by $15 million this year.

The county's community college system was hit hard by those state cuts, resulting in a hiring freeze, a tuition increase beginning in the spring of 2012 and other cost-saving measures to compensate for a loss of $6 million in state aid.

In addition, county Executive Dan Onorato's proposed $730 million budget for 2012 includes $19.3 million in cuts to the county Department of Human Services, partly as a result of state cuts. The proposed budget prompted more than 100 parents, child advocates, members of the clergy and others to testify to county council against the cuts on Wednesday.

Mr. Onorato's budget fails to include $5 million for human services that would have secured an additional $17 million in state and federal matching funds, dramatically amplifying the actual impact of the county budget cuts. The United Way of Allegheny County has estimated that, if approved in its current form, about 1,000 jobs would be lost under Mr. Onorato's budget.

If local residents don't want the service cuts that come with budget cuts from Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Mr. Fitzgerald said, local governments have little choice but to raise property taxes.

Allegheny County is the only county in Western Pennsylvania to avoid raising taxes as long as it has, he said.

"There's nothing else I can think of that you can buy where the price has not gone up in 10 years," he said.

The prime sponsor of the measure, Councilman William Robinson, could not be reached for comment. The legislation, which has circulated through council for several days, is being co-sponsored by eight other council Democrats.

James Ellenbogen -- one of just two Democrats on council who did not co-sponsor the measure -- has been supportive of the idea. If the measure earns his vote, the proposal would win a veto-proof majority in the event that Mr. Onorato refuses to sign the bill. Mr. Onorato could not be reached for comment.

The other non-sponsoring Democrat, Council President Jim Burn Jr., said he has serious reservations about the proposed tax increase. He would prefer to pass Mr. Onorato's budget in its current form, then reopen the budget after council reorganizes in early January, he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald, he said, should have a hand in deciding whether to raise taxes, or whether some other means of balancing the budget might be better.

"I think we owe it to the taxpayers of Allegheny County to show them we have exhausted all remedies," Mr. Burn said. "At least then we can look folks in the eye and say we tried everything, including letting our new leader take a look at this."


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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