Why we raised your taxes

Allegheny County can no longer rely on quick fixes to fund the services we need

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As elected officials, we are charged with maintaining and improving the lives of the residents of Allegheny County.

No one runs for elective office hoping that someday they will have to raise taxes. But on Dec. 6 we voted for a one-mill increase in the county property tax because we believed -- based on all of the available information -- that this decision was in the best interest of our constituents and all citizens of Allegheny County. As two of the 11 members of the Allegheny County Council who voted to raise the millage to 5.69 from 4.69, we want to make sure everyone understands why we took this difficult step.

In late October, County Executive Dan Onorato presented his 2012 Comprehensive Financial Plan. His proposed operating budget was $730.5 million -- a decrease of $37.2 million from 2011. This proposed decrease was largely the result of reduced federal funding ($4.2 million) and state funding ($29 million).

When he presented his budget to council, Mr. Onorato said his proposed cuts reflect "the new reality," though he chose to keep the same millage and assessment numbers for the past seven years.

So who was targeted for cuts? The better question would be, who wasn't?

Community College of Allegheny County, which puts many of our citizens on the road to careers, would have taken the largest general fund cut. The cuts proposed for the Department of Human Services, which provides safety-net services for those most in need, would have devastated existing programming. Every other department, except the Kane Regional Centers, would have taken a percentage cut, and several directors said the amounts left for their operations would not have allowed them to meet even their contractual obligations.

As dire as a potential decrease of more than $37 million might sound, the reality is much worse.

Most CPAs look for a balance between current-year revenues and current-year expenditures when evaluating fiscal health. While the county's unassigned fund balance has remained relatively steady over the past few years, this has been accomplished only with an infusion of "one-time" revenues.

According to County Controller Mark Flaherty, Mr. Onorato has used $184.8 million in a variety of one-time adjustments over the last five years "to ensure revenues were sufficient to meet operating expenditures." These quick fixes ranged from selling tax receivables to using PennDOT capital-expenditure reimbursements to cover operating expenses.

Such accounting maneuvers should be used only in extreme circumstances, and council has sometimes gone along with them. But eventually you reach the day of reckoning. In 2010, according to the county's audited financial statements, current-year expenditures exceeded current-year revenues by almost $31 million. Projections for 2011 continue this trend.

That is the background to the tax increase approved by County Council on Dec. 6. The one-mill increase we voted for will bring in approximately $55 million, based on the current assessed value of Allegheny County property. In essence, as council member Nicholas Futules noted, "we're simply trying to get back to the starting line" where revenues roughly match spending each year.

In reference to the reassessment, which is a concern to many of our citizens, we can't predict the future. As we write this, we don't know what the total assessed value of Allegheny County property will be post-reassessment, nor do we know when the numbers will be certified or what year the court will ultimately determine as the assessment year. We simply know that we need more revenue to operate county government responsibly for 2012 and that we must comply with the state anti-windfall law, which prevents a taxing body from using a reassessment to increase tax revenues.

Election to office for a few of us may hang in the balance, but we suggest that you listen online to council member James R. Ellenbogen, who spoke plainly about the effects on services the last time the county budget sustained the level of cuts proposed by Mr. Onorato for 2012. (You can find a video of the Dec. 6 meeting at http://alleghenycounty.legistar.com .)

At that time, Mr. Ellenbogen served as a public works supervisor. He saw the grass in the county parks grow to 3 feet high. He saw roads go untreated during a snow storm because "cheaper" salt didn't do the job. He saw North Park Lake fill with silt due to lack of funds to repair dredging equipment. And he recently watched in frustration as a multimillion-dollar capital project was needed to clear the lake -- a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach if ever there was one.

Mr. Ellenbogen said that if he was ever in a position to make sure such things never happened again, he would do something about it. On Dec. 6, he bravely voted for the tax increase.

Some say elected officials should pledge to never raise taxes. As one of our colleagues noted, that is a pledge to do nothing when something "needs done."

We voted for the tax increase because we promised to always make decisions based on the best long-term interests of the people of Allegheny County. So be it.

William Russell Robinson , chairman of the Allegheny County Council's Budget and Finance Committee, represents District 13. Barbara Daly Danko represents District 11.


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