Change in store for Mt. Lebanon
By Matthew Santoni
Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Raising taxes and borrowing money could become easier for Mt. Lebanon if voters approve some recommendations from a panel examining the town's home rule charter.
Commissioners on Monday heard recommendations that the municipality end or modify some restrictions on its tax rates and that it require only three, instead of four of the five, commissioners to approve borrowing money.
“We looked for things that were either broken, or not good governance,” said Bill Matthews, chairman of the committee that reviewed the charter during the past year and a half. “We weren't looking to rewrite the constitution of the community.”
Matthews said all the proposed changes would require voter approval via a referendum. In cases such as the four-vote requirement to incur debt, voters would be asked to undo results of previous referendum actions.
“We decide everything else by a simple majority, including our budget,” Commissioner John Bendel said of the four-vote requirement.
“It's treated differently, because at some point, the voters decided they wanted four commissioners to vote for issuing debt,” Matthews said.
The requirement may have been set with the idea that taking on debt merits extra consideration, the committee's report said, but it also prevents a two-commissioner minority from holding up financing for a project.
Another committee recommendation is to remove a link between the earned income and real estate taxes. Under the current charter, the income tax, now 0.8 percent, can rise only if property taxes are lowered enough that revenue stays the same. But past commissions used loopholes to get around the restrictions, the committee said.
The current charter also limits property tax hikes to 2 mills per year. Matthews said this may have been effective when property assessments were less than market value and tax rates were higher. The current millage rate is 4.51.
“There should be a cap on millage increases, and I think the community would embrace one, but this is an ineffective limit,” he said.
• Change the treasurer from an elected to an appointed position, so a current municipal employee could supervise tax collection and sign checks. Joe Senko, recently reappointed as acting treasurer, has said the elected seat isn't needed.
• Remove the requirement that public notices be published in a newspaper; they could be posted online and in the municipal building.
• Shorten the required public notice time for action on new debt, from the current 22 to 45 days to seven to 30 days, so commissioners could move faster to refinance bonds when interest rates fall, for example.
Because changes to the charter, adopted in 1975, require a public vote, Matthews recommended that commissioners choose one or two points to propose in the next election.
“If you put five or six or seven of these on the ballot at once, people are going to get confused and say, ‘I don't know what these are, but no,'” he said.
Commissioner Dave Brumfield liked all the committee's proposals. “I don't know which of these I can look at and say, ‘I don't think we need to do this immediately,'” he said.
Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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