Tax fairness: The county launches its scrutiny of nonprofits

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Allegheny County property owners know how officials at local nonprofits are feeling, now that the organizations have been told they'll soon be getting important mail about their property tax status.

It wasn't long ago that homeowners waited with trepidation as their own new property assessments were being prepared and again while the resulting new tax rates were being set to determine their annual real estate tax bills.

Even though those property owners have endured that kind of waiting, don't expect them to have much sympathy for many of the nonprofits. Homeowners have been paying their share all along, while the county has failed to make sure that's true of the nonprofit community.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced Tuesday that in the next few months, owners of many of the county's tax-exempt parcels will be asked to prove they deserve that status. He admits that the county's records are woefully out of date, so officials aren't even sure who owns all of the properties, let alone whether they are truly charitable institutions under state law.

County officials have been culling through ownership records of some 26,000 tax-exempt properties to determine which ones will have to answer questions about their status. Many of them are churches, schools and government buildings, and they won't be subject to the inquiries.

But the owners of nearly 9,000 parcels can expect notices in the next few months. Among them undoubtedly will be UPMC, the county's single largest property owner with $1.6 billion in holdings, 86 percent of it tax-exempt. Other large nonprofits own significant parcels, too, including Highmark, the West Penn Allegheny Health System, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

The county is not disputing their tax status en masse, but plans to evaluate each parcel individually. And if the county needs to add a few workers to get the project done, then so be it.

That was supposed to happen every three years, according to a measure passed by county council in 2007, but it never did. County Controller Chelsa Wagner, who has called for a similar review process, now is proposing that certification be required on an annual basis.

That would be the best course, but that's a decision for another day. For today, Mr. Fitzgerald and his team have made the responsible choice in getting this cumbersome, complicated process started. Nonprofits that deserve their tax breaks have nothing to fear from the inquiries, but it's important for the county to make sure nobody is getting an unfair pass on their taxes.

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