Tax inefficiency: The city's library billing should not be separate
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City of Pittsburgh property owners got a tax bill in the mail the other day. It wasn't their regular city property tax (that bill went out days earlier), but a bill for the 0.25-mill property tax that supports the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Why should one property get two property tax bills, several days apart, from the same city? Good question.
In the computer age, it looks like a classic case of government inefficiency, complete with the added cost. Some library supporters were suspicious that the separate billing was aimed to stir up resentment against the libraries by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who opposed the tax and has been less than friendly to the Carnegie system.
Scott Kunka, Pittsburgh's finance director, said the real problem was the city's "old and antiquated" tax billing system. He admitted it would have been ideal for the library tax, approved in a voter referendum last fall, to be tacked on to the property tax bill that includes the city tax and the school district tax. But he said the city's information technology staff estimated it would take 60 to 90 days to reprogram the computer system.
But even at that rate, if the IT department had begun its work on the conversion right after the Nov. 8 election, it could have had a unified tax bill ready to mail by early February.
Ira Weiss, the library's attorney, said it was apparent to him that the city didn't want to send a combined tax bill. The administration was also insistent on charging the Carnegie a 1 percent processing fee to collect the tax and $55,000 to pay for postage. The library went along with the charges to get the bill out.
Mr. Weiss believes the separate bill will result in lower library tax collections. He said some individuals won't pay it and mortgage lenders like banks that use an escrow account to pay taxes for the borrower will see the first tax bill and throw the second away.
All of this, of course, hurts the city libraries. Mr. Kunka says the "goal" next year will be to have all three city property taxes in one bill. We can only hope. With this kind of lead time, the Ravenstahl administration will have no excuse.
First Published March 17, 2012 12:00 am