Wagner audit cites inadequate county reviews of tax-exempt properties
Allegheny County's Office of Property Assessments improperly grants tax breaks and is such a sloppy record-keeper that some files containing data about reductions are missing or contain errors, the county controller charged on Thursday.
Controller Chelsa Wagner's 25-page report on the embattled Office of Property Assessments, commonly referred to as OPA, recommends tighter controls on eligibility for tax breaks. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald ordered staffing and other changes to the office last month.
“If record-keeping is not happening or exemptions are not justified, it undermines the fairness for everyone,” Wagner said. “For all the emphasis and talk about how we promote fairness and equity in the reassessment system, this flies in the face of that.”
Wagner's report occurs as county leaders scrutinize property tax exemptions for nonprofits.
The report focused on the county's 347,493 tax-exempt and tax-reduced properties and the process by which those breaks are granted. It found that 21 of 141 files initially requested by the controller for sampling purposes could not be located by the assessment office.
Of the 358 properties ultimately reviewed, 51 — or 14 percent — got a tax break they shouldn't have in 2011, costing the county $16,280 in revenue.
The county's homestead exclusion program, which grants homeowners a tax reduction on their primary residence, generated the highest rate of improper reductions. The controller examined 181 properties receiving the homestead exclusion and found the exemption was incorrectly applied to 46, a 25 percent error rate.
A vacant lot in Munhall owned by the nonprofit Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania was the only sample property the controller said improperly received a full exemption, which cost the county $2,119.
Junior Achievement President Dennis Gilfoyle said the lot was a gift to the group in 2005. The county denied annual requests for an exemption, and the group paid taxes on the lot through 2010. In 2011, Gilfoyle noticed the county's website stated that the property was exempt.
In August, the organization received a tax bill, and the county said the exemption was an error.
“We haven't paid the county or the school district until we get this problem resolved,” Gilfoyle said.
Fitzgerald has said he is in discussions to obtain voluntary contributions from nonprofits that don't pay property taxes, and he ordered a review of each tax-exempt property in the county to determine if its exemption is warranted.
County Council conducted a hearing last month to gather public input about UPMC's many tax-exempt properties.
Wagner recommended a parcel-by-parcel review and wants to require organizations seeking tax-exempt status to submit an affidavit showing they meet state requirements for charitable exemptions. She wants to post the affidavit online.
Fitzgerald's review would enforce a 2007 county ordinance that requires officials to review each tax-exempt parcel at least once every three years to ensure it is used for solely charitable purposes.
Fitzgerald's spokeswoman, Amie Downs, said he declined to comment on Wagner's report. The two have tangled repeatedly during the past year.
The Office of Property Assessments has been at the center of the county's controversial court-ordered property reassessment.
In September, Wagner blasted the county's $9.3 million contract with Dallas-based Tyler Technologies, which conducted the reassessment. Fitzgerald fired Assessments Manager Michael J. Suley in November. Tim Johnson, former director of Administrative Services, which oversees OPA, resigned last month.
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- NFL coaches weigh in on Polamalu’s legacy
- Hit sends Penguins’ Letang to hospital
- Pirates pitchers finding success with expanded strike zone
- GOP succeeding at down-ballot level
- Mt. Lebanon native, Iraq war hero’s action goes unrewarded
- From sticks to pucks, Mt. Pleasant collector wields power of the Pens
- LaBar: WWE’s Hall of Fame show drags — and knows it
- Downie’s goal, fight spark Penguins to win over Coyotes
- Starkey: Next frontier for Steelers offense
- Probiotic bacteria help conquer ‘superbugs’
- South Side house part of former Steeler’s end game