Review of tax-exempt land urged

County executive, controller agree audit needed

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Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and county Controller Chelsa Wagner appear to have found a subject they can agree on.

The county's Office of Property Assessment should undertake a parcel-by-parcel review of real estate tax exemptions claimed by charitable and nonprofit organizations, Ms. Wagner urged Thursday.

Jerry Tyskiewicz, whose Department of Administrative Services oversees the assessment office, wrote that the Fitzgerald administration already had planned to start such a review this year.

A call for periodic study of tax-exempt properties was included in Ms. Wagner's audit of the assessment office, known by the acronym OPA.

"OPA does not provide proper accountability or review [of] tax exemptions for charitable and nonprofit organizations to assure taxpayers that exemptions are warranted," Ms. Wagner said in a statement. "OPA should provide at least the same level of scrutiny for charitable tax exemptions as it does for better-administered property tax relief programs for individual homeowners."

Mr. Fitzgerald and county manager William McKain were aware of and concerned about many of the issues raised by the controller, Mr. Tyskiewicz, the department's new director, wrote in a response letter to the audit. "Many of those items dovetail with the information in your analysis," he said. "I appreciate the confirmation."

The Office of Property Assessment has been at the center of the court-ordered $15 million revaluation of every property in the county. That controversial effort has resulted in more than 100,000 appeals of new assessments that have gone into effect for this year.

Reassessment also has raised questions among county council members and residents about the high proportion of tax-exempt properties in many communities, especially Pittsburgh. Nearly 27,000 tax-exempt properties are in the county. Their value, based on 2002 base-year market assessments, was $16.6 billion. New assessment numbers raise their market value to $23 billion for 2013.

Nonprofits and charities, including hospitals, religious institutions and universities, were shielded from more than $78 million in county property taxes in 2011, according to the controller's audit. Those tax breaks are granted to nonprofits and charities in return for the services that they provide.

"The deficiencies within the charitable exemption process jeopardize fairness for everyone," Ms. Wagner said. "In a time where taxpayer assessments and tax burdens have increased, adequate exemption review is essential as every property unfairly off the tax rolls shifts an even greater burden to other county taxpayers."

The controller's audit makes several other recommendations:

• Requiring every tax-exempt organization to file an annual statement affirming it meets the state's five-point test for a charity.

• Working with municipalities and school districts to challenge exemptions.

• Making information about ownership of tax-exempt properties available online at no cost.

Ms. Wagner's report also calls for updating the county's property website to once again allow the public to search by owners' names as well as by addresses. Exceptions would be made for at-risk people such as police officers and judges.

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Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159.


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