Blade and Gunner are the two newest members of the city of Butler's police force.
The two dogs were able to join the department with the help of contributions from the city's nonprofit and charitable organizations.
Mayor Maggie Stock estimated that 25 percent of the $100,000 raised in donations to acquire and train the canines came from groups that are exempt from property taxes.
Children who attended the vacation Bible school offered by the city's First United Methodist Church raised $4,000 for the canine project, she said. In addition, First United Methodist makes a separate annual contribution to the city to help cover the costs of providing police, fire and other basic services.
"Every fall I send a letter to all the area's nonprofits, and each year we get more money than in the year past," Ms. Stock said.
First Methodist, like colleges, hospitals, libraries and social service agencies, is exempt from paying real-estate taxes on property used to carry out its religious and charitable functions. Nevertheless, the church and some other institutions have been making "payments in lieu of taxes," or PILOT contributions. Some are made annually, while others are given in support of a special project.
Seton Hill University, for example, has donated $30,000 to Greensburg under the terms of a multiyear agreement, city administrator Sue Trout said. Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, which operates a branch on Seton Hill's campus, has given another $5,000.
County seats, including the cities of Butler, Greensburg and Pittsburgh, tend to be the most affected by a concentration of tax-exempt properties. In Butler, nontaxable property totals 29 percent of the city's assessed value. In Greensburg, that number rises to about 35 percent. In Pittsburgh, which is home to major universities as well as UPMC, the region's largest medical provider, the statistic jumps to 39 percent.
By comparison, just 21 percent of all parcels in Allegheny County are tax exempt. In Butler County, the countywide statistic drops to 13 percent.
In response to the high proportion of tax-exempt properties in Pittsburgh, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has ordered the county's Office of Property Assessment to conduct a parcel-by-parcel review of real estate tax breaks claimed by charitable and nonprofit organizations.
A call for periodic study of tax-exempt properties also was included in a recent audit released by county Controller Chelsa Wagner. Her study calculated that nonprofits and charities, including hospitals, religious institutions, government facilities and universities, were shielded from more than $78 million in county property taxes in 2011. That number could be tripled to reflect taxes that would otherwise be paid to municipalities and school districts. In return for their tax breaks, nonprofits and charities are expected to provide services that benefit the residents of the municipalities where they are located.
Ms. Stock said she was appreciative of the services and benefits nonprofits provide. "We'd be a terrible community without schools, churches, libraries and social service agencies," she said. "They provide meals, raise money for school supplies, offer space for community meetings. I try to keep that balance in mind."
Their tax-exempt status, however, means that the burden of paying for public services falls on a narrower property base. One option worth investigating would be to assess a universal fee based on a building's square footage to offset some of a community's costs for fire, police, street repair and snow removal, she said. Making such a change would require action by the state Legislature.
William McCarrier, chairman of the Butler County commissioners, liked Allegheny County's idea of having nonprofits and charities periodically defend their tax-exempt status. "I'm not averse to having organizations fill out a form each year and explain why they deserve their breaks," he said.
Too much tax-exempt property was not a major concern for Washington County, except in the city of Washington, commissioners Chairman Larry Maggi said. The municipality is the county seat and home to Washington Hospital and Washington & Jefferson College.
In lieu of property taxes, the college and hospital make periodic payments to the city to help pay for public safety costs, Mr. Maggi said. County officials have no plans to challenge the tax-exempt status of nonprofits, he said.
Developing a long-term relationship with nonprofit leaders is key to getting financial support, former Washington Mayor L. Anthony "Sonny" Spossey said. The local hospital and college both have been generous when asked to support city projects, including storm sewers and a comprehensive plan.
"What you can't do is expect to have that money as part of your general operating budget," he said. "But you won't get money if don't ask."
Like the city of Butler, Greensburg has had luck with appeals to nonprofit institutions. "We send out annual letters showing how much each would have paid if their properties were taxable," Ms. Trout, the city administrator, said. "In addition, we've asked for sponsorship of various community initiatives," she said.
"We are not just focused on real estate taxes," Ms. Trout said. Seton Hill's new Performing Arts Center on Harrison Avenue and a proposed Dance and Visual Arts Center nearby at West Otterman Street and College Avenue are examples of town-gown efforts that are drawing more students and campus visitors downtown. "We're seeing the benefit in greater economic vitality as university employment and student enrollment rise," she said. "We want to create more partnerships with nonprofits and not be adversarial."
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 724-772-0184.