Highlands School District finds collecting back taxes no easy task
Highlands School District could buy a lot of textbooks and offer more classes with an extra $3 million to $4 million.
Business Manager Jon Rupert said that's roughly what the district is owed by the people and organizations appearing on the delinquent tax list that will be inserted by the district in the Valley News Dispatch on Sunday.
The list deals only with real estate taxes due to the school district, not its four constituent municipalities. The taxes are the major source of funding for Highlands' $39.4 million budget.
Rupert said there are a little more than 1,000 property parcels on the list. An analysis of the list by the Valley News Dispatch shows that more than one-third — 385 parcels — are carrying delinquent tax bills of $10,000 or more.
Cost vs. benefit
Whether those dollars are collectible is another matter, Rupert said.
“I'm working on who is collectible and who is not,” he said.
The properties from which the taxes can be recouped are those that would likely lure buyers at an Allegheny County sheriff's sale. Those would be people willing to pay the back taxes, penalty and interest a property has piled up, plus the cost of the sheriff's sale.
“That's the main thing we've got to find: the ones where the money outweighs the cost, and that's what we'll go after first,” Rupert said. “We'll just go through them the best we can. We‘ll send a list to the municipalities and ask their zoning people to determine if they are worth anything.
“You almost have to go property by property, and if people are interested, they'll call you. The trouble is now the sheriff's sale fees. It used to be $1,500, and now it's more like $6,000.”
One debt that won't be collected is owed by Brackenridge McKelvey Land Co. It also happens to be the biggest — $155,000 on 12 properties in Brackenridge and Harrison.
The company, which apparently was founded in the 1800s, involved Henry M. Brackenridge, for whom the borough of Brackenridge was named, as a president and director. It was incorporated with the state in 1916 and is still listed as an active corporation.
Rupert, however, said it no longer exists. The taxes owed, which he said may actually be on mineral rights, are phantom dollars that cannot be collected.
Of the people or organizations who have the 10 largest delinquent tax bills, the top three, including Brackenridge McKelvey Land Co., are listed as having no known address Attempts by the Valley News Dispatch to contact them were unsuccessful.
The VND could reach only two of the other seven.
What they said
Anthony Csizmadia of Harrison is seventh on the list and owes about $57,000 on 12 properties in the township's Natrona section, according to the school district. They range from $869 to $10,830.
Contacted Friday, Csizmadia said he buys rundown properties to fix them up and then sell them.
When asked why the taxes became delinquent, Csizmadia said, “The economy went bust, and I have some family problems of my own.”
He said he is making payments on the delinquent taxes.
Moore and Moore Investments is listed as the owner of a delinquent property on East Ninth Avenue in Tarentum that has a delinquent tax bill of about $53,000.A phone listing for Moore and Moore could not be found, but Allegheny County tax records listed a Harrison address as the billing address for the property. The address was for the home of Doug T. Moore, who said his company was Moore and Moore Investments.
When asked to comment on the delinquent tax bill, Moore said, “I don't feel like I need to comment.”As for the holders of the remaining largest delinquent tax bills, they either did not respond to messages, did not have a working phone number or had no listed phone number.
One of the puzzling aspects of the list is the appearance of municipal entities and non-profit groups as being tax delinquent. Both groups are exempt from paying taxes.
From what appears on the delinquent list, the borough of Tarentum would be the school district's largest tax delinquent, owing $188,000. That would include $74,000 in delinquent taxes just on the borough building, which used to be a physicians' office building.
“As of right now, they are taxable properties and they owe those taxes,” said Dawn Howells, secretary in the Highlands tax office who works with the tax listings daily.
“They are on there because there were taxes owed on those properties when they took them over. Those back taxes are not automatically wiped out.”
But Rupert said those listings are more or less a housekeeping problem with the tax records, and in reality, there is no cash to be had from them.
“They don't owe money, so I don't chase them down,” Rupert said.
Newly appointed Tarentum Solicitor David Regoli said he has had discussions with Highlands officials in an effort to clear those back taxes from the books.
“Tarentum is doing a good thing by taking the properties,” Regoli said. “But I think when the municipality takes the property, they are taking it under the assumption that the other taxing agencies, the school district or the county are going to forgive the delinquent taxes.”
He said he doesn't think the process will involve petitioning the Allegheny County courts for exoneration, but said he has never encountered this situation as a solicitor. Regoli said the borough has acquired such properties in order to demolish troublesome structures and provide vacant ground for new development.
“It's not like Tarentum Borough is a deadbeat taxpayer,” Regoli said. “Tarentum is trying to do the right thing. They are not letting people from Wyoming buy them on the Internet and letting them turn into crack houses.”
As for nonprofit organizations on the delinquent list, such as the VFW post in Tarentum and Natrona Comes Together, Rupert said those groups have to go through the same kind of process.
“If they are untaxable, they have to file the paperwork with the county,” he said.
Rupert said the delinquent properties are whittled down to those that district officials believe will be bought in a sheriff's sale and then be put up for sale.
Once that's done, the district will approach state legislators about the problem of properties for which taxes can't be collected because they are abandoned properties. The taxes and interest are allowed to accumulate, taking away any hope that someone will buy them.
Ideally, he said, lawmakers should consider giving county and local taxing bodies the authority to forgive back taxes and auction such properties.
Rupert said that would remove them from the delinquent list and provide the opportunity to make them real tax-producing properties and improving the community at the same time.
“Then the Brackenridge McKelvey Land companies, they all disappear,” Rupert said, “and the Natrona Comes Togethers can take a whole block and build something constructive.”