Citizens better monitor those new millage rates

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The state's anti-windfall law could use a cop, but it's written so that the people have about as much power as angry hall monitors.

The law, written specifically for Allegheny County, says that after a reassessment the county and the municipalities have to cut the property tax millage rate so no borough, city, township or school district gets more property tax revenue than it had before.

We've been watching, and not every municipality is obeying the law. Some don't even seem to know the law exists. The old rules allowed some wiggle room. A taxing body could keep a windfall of up to 5 percent. But the rules were tightened in an overwhelming vote by the General Assembly in 2005. Millage now has to be cut so that the revenue is neutral. Only after that can a government raise the millage up to 5 percent -- in a separate vote.

And if elected officials violate this law, do you know what the prescribed penalty is?

Nothing.

"There's nothing in law that says they get thrown in jail,'' says Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, who sponsored the 2005 House bill to tighten the rules. "The whole purpose was not to let them hide behind these windfalls,'' Mr. Mustio said.

But it's up to the citizenry to take it from there, he said. If your government doesn't cut its millage, or doesn't cut it far enough, throw the scoundrels out of office with your next vote.

The trouble is that nobody really knows what the millage rate should be. That's because the final revenue tally won't be known until all the assessment appeals are decided. Mr. Mustio is sympathetic to that difficulty. He was a Moon supervisor before he was a state legislator. But he says citizens should be asking their taxing bodies what route they're using to reach a legal fiscal finish line.

As Jim Tracy, a resident of Munhall, put it: "It doesn't take a genius to do the math: overall assessment increase for 2013 property values + no millage decrease = more money coming into the borough. Everyone's hands are tied and the only one getting squeezed is the taxpayer.''

The irony is that county council's one-time-only extension of appeals to April Fool's Day this year, supposedly a favor to taxpayers, has provided all the cover a municipality needs to delay cutting its millage rate.

Three of the watchdogs on this -- Mr. Mustio, county Controller Chelsa Wagner and state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale -- all agreed a reasonable route for a local government would be putting anything above last year's revenue into a sort of escrow account. That can go toward tax rebates to people winning their appeals. When that process is over, anything above the previous year's revenue could be dedicated to a millage cut, even if it's in the following year.

That's the route Munhall is taking. Its overall assessed value went up 16 percent, relatively low compared to other municipalities, and it could lose much of that through appeals. Councilman Dan Lloyd said the borough kept the millage rate where it was rather than base a new rate on unknowns, but at his suggestion the borough took the increased revenue and created an account that will be used to pay tax rebates to successful appellants.

If there's still a windfall after all those bills are paid, Mr. Lloyd said, that money can be taken into next year's millage calculations.

That's reasonable, Ms. Wagner said. What would be unreasonable is taking extra revenue and using that in the current budget as a windfall, she said.

Auditor General DePasquale said his office will be adding a windfall watch to its audits of Allegheny County school districts. It can't compel action if it finds a violation, but it "can bring public pressure to bear,'' he said.

A property tax windfall watch is also on Controller Wagner's website, www.alleghenycontroller.com, It shows the old and current millage in each municipality and takes a stab at what a zero windfall millage would be, though that remains a moving target.

Citizens need to find their bearings here. The more people understand, the better the odds that local governments will follow the law. Potential tax breaks for tens of thousands of homeowners hang in the balance.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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