Many still don't apply for Allegheny County realty tax exemption

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It's one of the few tax breaks Allegheny County gives -- and after a painful reassessment that has brought our tax system under new scrutiny, you had better believe everyone is applying for it.

But despite soaring interest in the homestead exemption, which lets residents deduct a portion of their home's value from their tax bill, data collected by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicate poorer residents have been left behind.

More than 21,000 people applied for the exemption this year, more than double from last year. Countywide, 322,000 residents have signed up, each saving about $85 on their county property tax bill.

Any county taxpayer is eligible to join, though the tax break can only be applied to his primary residence.

Despite this, participation varies widely. While wealthier ZIP codes in Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair post participation rates above 90 percent, communities in Braddock and the Hill District barely hit 75 percent, a Post-Gazette analysis found.

"It's a crazy low rate," said Demi Kolke, a community organizer at Operation Better Block, a Homewood-based advocacy group. "A lot of people are just totally unaware of it. When we tell them, there's almost this sense of skepticism, just because it seems too good to be true."

The county program allows residents to lop $18,000 from their primary residence's assessed value, saving them about $85 a year in county property taxes. School districts and municipalities often run exemption programs of their own, and in Pittsburgh, residents certified by the county can save an additional $400 in city, school district and library taxes.

Indeed, the exemption has become so popular that Pittsburgh Public Schools may have to reduce the amount it distributes per household this year. Since the district pays for the rebate with state gambling funds -- and those aren't going up -- more applications means each household could get at least $8 less.

Allegheny County, which has committed to paying the exemption in full, is currently on track to spend nearly $400,000 more this year. The program has a strong ally in county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who created the tax break while president of county council.

"We believe people are entitled to it," said Jennifer Liptak, Mr. Fitzgerald's chief of staff. "If more people apply, that's a positive thing for the community."

Mr. Fitzgerald touted the exemption during his race for executive in 2011, with his campaign saying it had "a disproportionately positive effect on middle- and low-income residents."

That may be true, but only if they apply for it. Getting the tax break into the hands of the folks who need it the most can be naggingly difficult, officials and advocates say.

Ms. Kolke, the Homewood activist, works to help the city's poorer residents help themselves. Aided by University of Pittsburgh researchers, she was shocked when she saw the low rates of participation in the exemption program.

She set up community workshops and handed out application forms but found the most success going door-to-door with a clipboard in hand, she said. When homeowners understood what the county was offering, their eyes lit up.

"A big part of it is that lack of homeowner education," she said. "There's that idea that achieving the American dream is becoming a homeowner. A lot of people have that at the forefront but know they don't know about the things that come with that -- and they aren't really at a place where they have access to resources to find out."

Ms. Liptak said the county has worked hard to get word out on the exemption, handing out forms at town hall meetings and helping attendees fill them out.

According to the Post-Gazette's analysis, Baldwin Borough, Ben Avon Heights and Bethel Park topped the list of municipalities with the highest participation. Rankin, Homestead and Pennsbury Village were at the bottom.

In its review, the Post-Gazette searched county assessment records for properties whose mailing addresses were the same as their street addresses, an indication that owners considered it a primary residence.

That number was split into households that applied for the homestead exemption and those that didn't, with the resulting percentage tallied by ZIP code and municipality.

mobilehome - region - reassessment

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


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