Property tax rebate for seniors in Unity

Town forum set to discuss giving low-income elderly a break

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Unity is moving forward with a plan to give low-income senior citizens a rebate on their property taxes.

Supervisors will hold a community forum on the issue at 7 p.m. April 10 in Greater Latrobe Senior High School, and they want to hear from senior citizens as well as younger working residents.

The supervisors first began talking about such a tax break in the fall. They formed an advisory committee of 12 people, composed of senior citizens and working residents, which met in October, November and February.

To determine how many property owners in the township are age 65 or older, residents will be asked to respond to a survey that they will receive with their spring property tax statements, which will be mailed in two weeks.

The survey will enable supervisors to plan for the loss of property taxes from such a rebate.

"I think we can take a loss of $150,000 to $200,000 [from tax rebates] without reducing services or asking other property owners for more in revenue," supervisors chairman Michael O'Barto said.

The township's property tax brings in about $900,000 a year, he said.

Unity can handle a decrease in tax revenue because of the growth of businesses and housing in the township.

Mr. O'Barto said the township has grown steadily in his 20 years. Its population is about 23,000, or 3,000 more than in the 2000 census, he said.

The township has benefited from the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, which is booming, he said, and the county's air park for businesses adjacent to the airport.

"We just approved in December the third phase of development at the air park," he said. Other large employers, such as Kennametal, also have seen growth.

The township has an annual budget of $5.2 million and has seen increased revenue in recent years.

Mr. O'Barto noted that last year was the township's first year to levy a local services fee -- $52 a year for those who work in the township -- and it brought in $330,000. The fee is to help pay for providing workers for emergency services, such as fire protection.

"Secondly, our earned income tax revenues are increasing," he said. Last year, the 0.5 percent wage tax brought in about $2.5 million.

"Another good source is our revenue from the real estate transfer tax, when people buy and sell property," he said.

The township also received $68,000 in December when the state distributed revenues for the first time from Marcellus Shale gas wells. The township doesn't have any gas wells now but expects to have them in the future, which would mean increased gas revenues.

Mr. O'Barto said the township solicitor researched the legality of how to give senior citizens a tax break and decided the best way was through a tax rebate.

Currently, the township property tax rate is 3.2 mills. The average property assessment in the township is $22,000, and the market value of a property is about 2 1/2 times the assessed value, Mr. O'Barto said. So, the average property value is about $55,000, and the average property owner pays about $70 annually.

The Greater Latrobe School District property tax rate is 76 mills, and the Westmoreland County rate is 21 mills, so the township property tax makes up about 3 percent of the total property tax bill for a taxpayer.

"I can't do anything about the school taxes, but we can help with the township property tax," Mr. O'Barto said.

Mr. O'Barto said he believes all three supervisors support the idea of giving low-income seniors a tax break.

"I am very hopeful that this may open up the state's eyes," Mr. O'Barto said.

"This is doable, and in the end it will be up to the supervisors to decide," he said. "We three may have different ideas on how to do it, but I believe this initiative is going to pass in some form this year for the 2014 tax year."

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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