Yes, We Have No Enforcement

A column over the weekend pointed out that while state law spells out what has to happen to tax rates after an assessment in Allegheny County and its municipalities, along with school districts in Allegheny County and across the state, it is ultimately going to fall on the citizens-possibly with the help of elected officials that watch the public purse such as county and city controllers, the Auditor General’s office, etc.-to pay attention to what has happened to their millage rates thus far and what will happen soon as school budgets are adopted for the coming fiscal year.

The primary sponsor of the law that pertains to Allegheny County and its municipalities, Act 71 of 2005, noted "There’s nothing in law that says [local officials who don’t follow procedures] get thrown in jail…The whole purpose was not to let them hide behind these windfalls".

To reiterate, any non-school taxing body in Allegheny County would have to set their millage rate at a revenue neutral level, and then, in a separate action-which contrasts with the previous law-could take a vote to raise millage so that the taxing body could get up to 5% more in revenue. If they wanted more, they could petition the courts, which happened in Monroeville.

To the point of the column, we wrote about the question of "what happens if someone violates the law" in the February 2012 Brief mentioned above. We did note that "A serious shortcoming of the laws is that they don’t spell out who is in charge of ensuring that taxing bodies follow the requirement, nor specify what, if any, punishment should be imposed for refusal to follow statutory requirements…Clearly, refusal by elected officials to comply with state laws ought to be grounds for severe punishment, including possible removal from office".

Examining a 2013 Tax Bill for a Home

The County and its municipalities run their fiscal year on a calendar basis, and so in two weeks will have presumably established their property tax rates for 2013 and adjusting them for revenue neutral requirements under Act 71 of 2005. The only school district in Allegheny County that operates on a calendar fiscal year is the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and they have proposed a millage rate of 9.65 so as to comply with Act 1 of 2006 requirements, which state that in a year of reassessment a school district can’t collect more revenue than what is allowed by its Act 1 index for the previous year.

As of now, proposed rates and homestead exemptions (which lower the assessed value of a qualified owner-occupied home for tax purposes) for 2013 are as follows:

Allegheny County: 4.73 mills, $15,000 exemption

City of Pittsburgh: 7.56 mills, $15,000 exemption

Pittsburgh Public Schools: 9.65 mills, $28,685 exemption

All millage rates were adjusted downward; the County’s homestead exemption amount is unchanged, the City’s proposed exemption is up from $10,000 last year, and the school district’s amount is higher due to increased gambling receipts (it was $19,000 in 2012).

A home in the City assessed at $115,000 that took all available exemptions would have a tax bill of $3,039 in 2012. That amounts to 2.6% of the assessed value.

Assume that the assessed value for the home rose 50% and no appeal of the value was undertaken, establishing the 2013 assessed value at $172,500. The resulting tax bill for 2013 would be $3,328 for 2013, an increase of $289 (10%) over the 2012 tax bill. The tax bill would equal 1.9% of the assessed value.

A Peek at Millage Rates

When a reassessment is conducted by a county in Pennsylvania, state law requires the county and the other taxing bodies in that county-municipalities and school districts-to adjust their millage rates so that the amount of revenue taken in the first year under the new values is neutral and that hikes to millage rates above the revenue neutral amount necessitate a separate vote of the taxing body (governing entities in Allegheny County used to be able to take 105% of the pre-reassessment revenue without a separate vote) and increases above require permission of the courts. We wrote about these requirements in two Briefs this year, here and here.

A new property tax analyzing tool, Property Tax Estimator, allows the average taxpayer to see what he or she can expect to pay in property taxes after the rollbacks occur. Much of this is forecast based on what the changes in assessed value are for the County and other taxing bodies. School districts, with the exception of Pittsburgh Public Schools, already adopted their millage rates for the fiscal year covering the first half of 2013 and won’t adjust the millage until the fiscal year that starts next July. That leaves this analysis to Allegheny County and its municipalities (excluding two that lie partially in another county and three that carry separate land and building tax rates).

In the big picture for 2012, the average millage rate is 6.39 mills; the Estimator’s analysis forecasts the average to fall 24% and stand at 4.86 mills in 2013. The County’s rate is expected to fall from the current 5.69 mills to 4.11. The City of Pittsburgh from 10.8 mills to 6.94 mills. The community with the highest millage rate in 2012 (East Pittsburgh) and the community with the lowest (Pine) remain at the top and the bottom, respectively, in 2013’s estimates, it is just that both rates are lower than this year’s.

The one outlier, so to speak, is the borough of Pitcarin in the eastern part of the County. It was the only municipality where assessed values were projected to fall under the new assessed values. In order to remain revenue neutral, its millage rate would have to rise. That places its 2013 rate at 6.1 mills, up from 5.75. Municipalities with small drops in millage include Turtle Creek (7%), Mt. Lebanon (7%), and Coraopolis (8%) while sizable millage rates drops are projected in Rankin (43%), Dravosburg (46%), Neville (48%) and Harmar (56%).