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Successful county reassessment appeals mean less for Whitehall

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

An adjustment was needed to Whitehall's property tax rate for 2014 to keep the borough's revenue stream consistent with past years, after hundreds of successful appeals from a county-wide reassessment left the borough bringing in less money, the majority of council members agreed.

Council members, in a 6-1 vote at the Feb. 5 meeting, agreed to set the real estate tax rate for 2014 at 4.65 mills, an increase from the 4.32 mills in 2013. How this adjustment will affect the residents will be seen on an individual basis — based on if a homeowner's successfully appealed his reassessed property value last year, council Vice President Robert McKown said.

“This is not a tax increase,” McKown said.

Borough council members adopted the town's $15.1 million spending plan for this year in December, but held off finalizing the 2014 millage rate until final property assessment figures were received. Whitehall leaders in 2012 were conservative when estimating the tax rate for 2013, they said.

A court-ordered reassessment prompted the borough to reduce its tax rate from 5.5 mills in 2012 to 4.32 mills in 2013.

Municipalities in Allegheny County were required to change property tax rates to become “revenue neutral,” based on reassessed values.

Whitehall's total assessed property value for 2013 was about $820 million, McKown said. Municipalities were allowed to take a 5 percent “windfall” in 2013, but Whitehall officials opted against this.

After appeals, assessed property values in the borough dropped to $705,378,150 — a decrease of about $114 million.

That led Whitehall to bring in about $98,000 less in real estate tax revenues in 2013, McKown said.

Council members, then, agreed last week to adjust the borough's tax rate to again bring in $3.2 million in revenues from real estate taxes, McKown said.

Councilman Ryan Barton, the lone dissenter on the millage change, said he doesn't agree with the move, especially in a town that has a healthy reserve fund.

“My feeling here is we have over funded our fund balance,” Barton said. “I think that the borough should have a healthy fund balance — which we do.”

Barton said he doesn't want to see the borough holding on to the residents' money in a reserve account.

Barton, who was sworn in as a newly elected councilman in January, said he suggested that if council wanted to raise taxes to wait until after the next budget session at the end of the year and look at ways to more efficiently spend the borough's money.

The borough's fund balance was $4.8 million at the start of 2013, McKown said.

Borough officials had budgeted to use $864,000 from that in 2013, but likely will end up only taking $156,000 from the reserve, McKown said. That is because the borough received extra funds through property sales and projects planned for last year that were delayed.

McKown said it's important to put aside money for known projects and purchases that are upcoming in the next several years so that the borough will not have to borrow funds, which, ultimately, would come at a larger cost to the town.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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