Unity officials to vote on property tax rebate

Low-income older taxpayers may save

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It's not as bold as eliminating all property taxes, but it would be a step toward giving some tax relief to older folks and retirees.

Supervisors in Unity plan to vote tonight on whether to give lower-income homeowners age 65 and older a full rebate on their municipal property taxes. For a homeowner earning $35,000 annually, the average savings would be $70 a year.

A nine-member tax-study panel, headed by Supervisor Mike O'Barto, will present a draft tax-rebate ordinance to the three Unity supervisors at a meeting tonight.

A Pennsylvania homeowner pays property taxes to three governing bodies -- the municipality, the county and the school district. School property taxes are always the largest amount, and Unity's proposed rebate wouldn't affect that or the county portion of a tax bill.

Even though municipal property taxes aren't the largest chunk, Mr. O'Barto said the proposed rebate "would be a welcome start" toward some relief.

He thinks Unity would be the first Westmoreland County community to offer such a tax break. He said he'd like to see other townships, as well as the county and school districts, "do what they can do to help senior citizens."

Under the proposed legislation, income-eligible seniors would pay their municipal property taxes as they do now, but then could apply to the township for reimbursement.

Mr. O'Barto said many 65 and older are living on limited incomes -- many just getting Social Security benefits and perhaps a small pension -- so property taxes can be a serious problem.

He said he has talked to a lot of township residents "and they are happy that Unity is trying to do something" to help seniors.

He said the township has been growing in the past decade and has added taxable property, both commercial and residential, which has increased tax revenue. The population is now almost 23,000, or 3,000 more than a decade ago.

Income limits for a person to get the proposed tax break would be $36,500 a year for a single person and $52,000 a year for four people. A household would be eligible if at least one person listed on the tax bill is 65 or older and has lived in the township for at least five consecutive years.

Darlene Upson, head of the township's Concerned Citizens group and a member of the tax-study panel, said she hopes supervisors will approve the proposal.

Mr. O'Barto said the proposed tax relief would cost Unity less than 2 percent of its $5 million annual budget, or about $90,000, and other funds can make up for the loss. One possibility is using annual oil and gas drilling fees the township receives from the county.

Officials at the Pennsylvania Municipal League said there are more than 2,500 townships, boroughs and cities in Pennsylvania, but they knew of no central list showing how many municipalities offer property tax rebates.

Ray Landis, spokesman for the state chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, said he believes there are a number of communities in the state that grant similar property tax breaks, but didn't have specifics.

In Allegheny County, he said that O'Hara, Findlay and South Fayette, as well as the city of Pittsburgh and the county itself, provide property tax breaks to eligible seniors.

"AARP supports any efforts to allow seniors who have limited incomes to address the rising burden of property taxes," Mr. Landis said.

National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp said tax rebates are fine as far as they go, but aren't as good as having a municipality reduce all its property taxes, which could lead to smaller municipal governments.

"But tax rebates are at least a start in the right direction," he said. He'd also like to see strict limits put on how much property taxes can be increased in any given year.

Mr. Sepp said school taxes are a special problem for senior citizens. Senior citizens almost never have children still in school, so eliminating school property taxes for seniors seemed fair to him. But doing so is difficult because of the large cost of public education and school districts can't afford to give up the tax money.

The AARP's Mr. Landis said the state House has considered a bill that would allow school districts to give senior citizens -- subject to certain income limits -- a partial rebate on their school property taxes in exchange for the taxpayer agreeing to do volunteer work for the district, but the legislation hasn't been enacted.

Some tax information, on a state-by-state basis, is contained in the U.S. Master Property Tax Guide, compiled in 2011 by Commerce Clearing House, Mr. Sepp said. According to that, seniors in Pennsylvania who are 65 and older are eligible for annual tax rebates of up to $650 on a "local option" basis, meaning their municipality must enact the relief.

Another wrinkle, he said, is that seniors with annual incomes of $30,000 or less can get additional relief if their total property tax bill exceeds 15 percent of their income.

In most states, the local-option tax break must be authorized by state officials, which Pennsylvania has done.

Mr. Sepp said the municipal property tax break is legal because all homeowners are taxed at the same rate.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Tom Barnes, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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