Privileged property: The county must examine tax-exempt holdings

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It's a no-brainer. With 550,000 properties in Allegheny County freshly reassessed and many of their owners due higher tax bills in 2013, the county should routinely examine the validity of tax exemptions given to the properties of nonprofits. It doesn't.

Expect that to change. County Controller Chelsa Wagner released an audit Thursday with which the county executive agrees. She said the Office of Property Assessment should take a parcel-by-parcel look at the real estate tax exemptions claimed by nonprofit organizations. It's a subject she raised last June.

Fortunately, in response to the audit, an official in the administration of Executive Rich Fitzgerald said it had already planned to begin a review this year.

A Post-Gazette report in September showed that mega-nonprofit UPMC, the county's single largest property owner, has $1.6 billion in holdings and that 86 percent is tax-exempt. Other large nonprofits such as Highmark, the West Penn Allegheny Health System, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and others own significant parcels as well.

Altogether there are nearly 27,000 tax-exempt properties in the county, with an assessed value of $23 billion for 2013.

Ms. Wagner was right to point out that the burden of proof for keeping a tax exemption is on the nonprofit organization. Yet she said that "OPA does not provide proper accountability or review for tax exemptions for charitable and nonprofit organizations to assure taxpayers that exemptions are warranted."

We agree with the controller that tax exemptions are a privilege, not a right -- and we have no doubt that the average taxpayer believes the same. It's time for the county to embrace that policy.

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