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Highlands school director's delinquent tax bill grows

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Highlands High School's girls head coach Ron Lang keeps an eye on practice during basketball practice on Tuesday November 27, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

Although Highlands School director Ron Lang continues to pay on delinquent property taxes owed the district, his debt actually has increased.

In April, Lang's delinquent taxes on four properties totaled $32,963. Now his back taxes amount to $34,920, according to the district's delinquent tax records.

Lang did not respond to repeated calls for comment from the Valley News Dispatch.

Payment effort

A check of district tax records in April showed that Lang owed a total of $32,963 on four properties, including $9,600 on his residence, dating back to 2007.

At that time, Lang said it was the result of some “business complications” that he encountered and that he was on a payment plan with the district.

Jon Rupert, Highlands business manager who oversees delinquent collections, said that Lang has signed a payment plan for his residence in Brackenridge but not for the three commercial properties he owns in Tarentum. Rupert said, under a payment plan, the tax delinquent gives up appeal rights, agrees to pay a certain monthly amount on the property and if he or she misses a payment, that property can immediately go into a sheriff's sale. He said Lang has paid the taxes on his residence for 2011, 2012 and 2013 but owes for 2008, 2009 and 2010, and that amount now stands at $7,566. Rupert said Lang also made at least one $500 payment on taxes owed for his business, the Praha Hotel on Corbett Street.

Lang's debt has increased despite those efforts, Rupert said, because of 2012 taxes that came due on the properties after April and because of the 10 percent interest he is charged on the delinquent taxes and penalties he owes.

According to district tax records, the Praha property had $12,776 in delinquent taxes in April but that has jumped to $15,936. Lang's commercial building on Fifth Avenue was $7,058 in arrears and that debt has grown to $7,399, even though the 2012 taxes on it were paid. Taxes owed on a vacant Fourth Avenue lot had been delinquent by $3,529 for 2008 through 2010. The 2011 taxes were paid but the 2012 taxes increased the delinquency to $4,019.

Ethical standards

Barry Kauffman, Pennsylvania director of the public watchdog group Common Cause, said public officials such as school board members have ethical obligations they should meet.

“School boards are a taxing body. School taxes are one of the biggest things that property owners pay every year,” Kauffman said. “The school board expects the average citizen to be on their school taxes as much as possible, and I think they need to lead by example.”

“(What) if people look at this and say, ‘Gee, even school board members can't keep up with their taxes, so I'm not going to worry about paying mine,' ” he said. “We don't want anyone, school board members or private citizens, taking that kind of cavalier attitude. That is not good citizenship.”

Sheriff's sale factor

Rupert was asked why Lang's delinquent properties have not been put up for sheriff's sale. He replied that the district's goal is to get tax delinquents to pay what they owe. He said the district does not want to end up owning such properties, which could happen if a delinquent property fails to sell.

Each year, Rupert said the district turns 40 to 60 delinquent properties over to Solicitor Ira Weiss to prepare for sheriff's sale. He said the district tries to select properties that will sell quickly, usually houses. He said commercial properties can be difficult to move and singled out the former Bouchat property as an example.

The delinquent tax collection problems that municipalities and school districts have could be avoided, Rupert said, if Allegheny County had a tax claim bureau such as those in Butler and Westmoreland. He said, through those bureaus, all properties that are two years delinquent automatically go up for sheriff's sale. When the district began its own program to collect delinquent taxes, he said, they amounted to about $6 million; it is down to $2 million now.

“When we started doing this, we found people who owed 40 years of taxes, all because the county doesn't have a tax claim bureau,” Rupert said.

As for whether Lang's commercial properties could go up for sheriff's sale, Rupert said, “These are certainly eligible when we discuss the next batch.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com.

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