In the early 1990s, the Allegheny County Regional Asset District was dreamed up as a solution to two problems vexing Pittsburgh and surrounding communities: the lack of a stable funding source for cultural assets and property taxes senior citizens were struggling to pay.
Across the county, the regional asset district has created a stream of funds for libraries, parks and theaters. But the city's cut of the money, about $7.5 million, has gone toward paying down a $60 million loan to create the Pittsburgh Development Fund in 1995 instead of toward a tax relief program.
On Tuesday, city Councilman Ricky Burgess introduced legislation to change that, reviving a tax relief program in 2015 after the loan is finally paid off. His proposed program could affect around 20,000 homeowners who saw their tax bills go up following the 2012 reassessment, and it won't be restricted to seniors.
"It goes to everybody, not just those who can afford a lawyer to fight their reassessment," he said.
Mr. Burgess acknowledged the loan helped to fund some worthy projects -- such as the SouthSide Works and Pittsburgh Technology Center -- but said the money's purpose was for tax relief.
"I will do everything in my power to make sure these dollars are used for tax reduction purposes," he said. "This money was intended for [tax relief] from the beginning."
For those who are eligible, the program would turn back the clock for homeowners who saw their tax bills go up following the 2012 reassessment, dropping their tax bills to pre-assessment levels.
The program is limited to homeowner-occupied properties, and homeowners must have owned their homes for more than 10 years. If homeowners purchased their homes with the help of government or nonprofit assistance, they would be eligible after five years of home ownership.
The "mechanics" of the program, like whether eligible homeowners would automatically get relief or would have to apply for it, have yet to be determined.
Using county real estate data, Mr. Burgess' office found that the highest concentration of the beneficiaries would be in the East End.
While the program could expand if homeowners stay put, Mr. Burgess said it had room to grow because it will only cost about half of the $7.5 million allocation in the first year.
Relief could either be scaled back for homeowners or the city could decide to underwrite the program.
Although the relief program would not go into effect until 2015, Mr. Burgess said he decided to introduce the legislation Tuesday because he fears the RAD funds will once again be diverted for other purposes. The city's contracts with the police and firefighter unions expire at the end of 2014. Mr. Burgess said he worried the $7.5 million would be used to fund increases in salaries or benefits for those two groups.
Correction: Posted May 15, 2013: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date. The City of Pittsburgh's contracts with the police and firefighter unions expire at the end of 2014.