Kicking the can down the road
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Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato appeared recently on "KD/PG Sunday Edition" on KDKA-TV. The subject was property assessments and the dilemma facing Allegheny County as a result of the state Supreme Court's ruling that the county must reassess. Dan's response to that ruling was to ask the state Legislature to declare a moratorium on court-ordered reassessments. It seems to me that such action would violate the provisions of separation of powers in the constitution of the commonwealth.
Dan's defiance of this most recent court order continues a disturbing pattern by the current county administration of repeated efforts to circumvent the court's decisions regarding assessments. All such attempts have so far failed. While Dan's actions may be politically advantageous, it is not a proper way to govern.
During the TV interview Dan stated that he never pledged to "fix the assessment system." During the campaign for county executive in 2003, Dan and I participated in 26 debates. I recall quite clearly that in all those debates Dan said: "I will fix the assessment system." Dan's solution was to freeze tax assessments at the 2002 rate. A majority of the county commissioners did the same thing in 1996 and, like Dan, saw the courts order a reassessment.
Dan and I have a fundamental disagreement about assessments. I believe that assessments should reflect the true value of property and should be kept reasonably current. Taxing bodies should be required to adjust millage so that property taxes will not be raised more than the consumer price index. Seniors on low, fixed incomes should be exempt from any increases and there should be mandated control of school district spending. (Forty-nine states regulate either expenditures or millage for public schools. Only Pennsylvania allows uncontrolled spending.)
I do agree that the county executive's call for the state to administer the assessment system is the best solution. Forty-eight states now control all state property assessments. Only Pennsylvania and Delaware (with just three counties) give this responsibility to the counties.
The consequences of Dan's assessment freeze have been: the already mentioned lawsuits; a significant shortfall of revenues for the county, the city of Pittsburgh and other municipalities; and increased tax rates in most school districts. However, the most egregious result has been the budget deficits incurred by the county.
In 2007, Dan was forced to take $20 million of gaming funds dedicated to airport debt service to balance his budget. (The airport recently had to borrow $20 million to defray high landing fees caused by their debt service obligations.) In 2008, the county deficit was covered by a new drink and car rental tax of $44 million, the highest annual tax increase in the history of the county. This flies in the face of Dan's often repeated statement that he has "held the line on taxes."
By now it should be obvious to everyone that Dan intends to kick the assessment can down the road as long as possible or at least until the issue no longer interferes with his quest for the governor's office. Dan's delaying tactics may or may not benefit his political career, but they undoubtedly will leave the property owners of Allegheny County in a very difficult situation.
First Published May 25, 2009 12:00 am