Allegheny County may increase, simplify mortgage and deed filing fees

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Allegheny County Council will hold an unusual committee meeting Tuesday to discuss a plan to raise an additional $11 million in real estate fees next year.

The proposal from county Executive Rich Fitzgerald would increase charges for filing mortgages and deeds with the department of real estate.

County manager William McKain last week asked council for quick action on the proposal so any new revenues could be reflected in the preliminary budget the Fitzgerald administration will propose next month to council. Council's budget and finance committee will discuss the matter at its meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday, just before council's regular business meeting at 5 p.m.

The higher document-recording fees represent an attempt to find new sources of money for the county that don't involve raising property or other county taxes.

The proposed $150 flat fee for recording a variety of deeds and mortgages would replace the current, more complicated system in which the filing charge depends on such factors as the number of pages and number of people or companies named in the document. The basic charge is $78.

Filers make errors in calculating their charges in about 25 percent of all cases, according to Valerie McDonald Roberts, manager of the county's Department of Real Estate. Those mistakes can lead to delays in recording documents, she said.

Attorneys and real estate agents who use her department told her they would prefer a simpler system even if the cost were higher. "Set it and forget it" is the way Ms. McDonald Roberts summarized the policy.

Allegheny County's current filing fees were less than half of those charged for similar documents in Philadelphia, she said. The proposed $150 charge still would remain below the charge in the state's most populous county, where it costs $230 to record a deed and $200 to record a mortgage, according to Philadelphia's Department of Records website.

The county's Department of Real Estate recorded more than 33,000 deeds and 127,000 different kinds of mortgage documents in 2011. The new fees would raise between $8 million and $11 million more for the county's general fund, Mr. McKain estimated. The exact amount would vary from year to year, depending on fluctuating real-estate sales and financing activity.

Each mill of property tax brings in about $54 million to the county, so $11 million would be equal to about 0.2 mills.

The fee proposal appeared to have support from several members of the budget and finance committee.

Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, urged the Fitzgerald administration to consider increasing other real estate-related fees as well. Some have not been changed for 16 years or longer, he said. "We should be taking a look at all of these," he said. Ms. McDonald Roberts will seek to "benchmark" those other fees by seeing what other counties charge for similar services.

The Fitzgerald proposal on real estate fees is one element of a triple-track effort to find alternative sources of revenue for the county.

William Robinson, D-Hill District, had asked in August for a review of the 15 separate county departments and offices that collect fees for services. In 2011, they brought in $87.2 million. That number is budgeted at $91.6 million for this year.

The idea behind the review was to determine when fees had been last changed and whether the county was covering its costs for those services.

Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, described the proposal to raise filing fees as an example of "the kinds of creative things we can do." Her goal is to find enough cost savings and new revenues to rescind for 2013 the 1-mill property tax increase approved last year by council.

Council divided along party lines to approve the 2012 budget and tax increase, with Democrats voting for it and Republicans opposed. The tax increase produced more than enough revenue to restore $7 million for Community College of Allegheny County and $5 million for the Department of Human Services.

The additional money from the higher deed and mortgage fees would come close to replacing the money needed for those two purposes, Ms. Heidelbaugh said. That extra revenue would open the way for council to trim property taxes next year, she said.

region

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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