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Wagner: Reassessment to give county too much money, recommends millage change

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 12:50 p.m.

Standing next to a sign containing the image of a $50 bill, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said on Thursday that property owners are paying too much in county taxes because leaders failed to lower the millage enough to offset the rise in reassessed value.

“We're asking the executive and County Council to correct it now,” Wagner said at a news conference. “I have major concerns over the millage rate and that the county is overcharging taxpayers and breaking state law.”

Her comments sparked a sharp rebuke from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who said at his own news conference that the county is not overcharging and will not reap a windfall from the court-ordered reassessment.

“They're being misled by the county controller,” Fitzgerald said. “We feel very confident in our numbers.”

Under state law, taxing bodies cannot reap more than 5 percent in additional revenue from property taxes in the year after a reassessment.

The millage debate is the latest clash between the two Democrats, who have grappled over cuts to the controller's budget, Fitzgerald's taking control of the Department of Weights and Measures, and Wagner's ideas for bringing in more money for the Port Authority.

In December, County Council approved Fitzgerald's proposal to reduce property taxes from 5.69 mills to 4.73 mills, a 17 percent reduction, because property values went up under the reassessment.

Fitzgerald said the millage rate was lowered enough so that county property tax income would stay roughly the same.

Wagner said Fitzgerald and council should lower property taxes by a half mill to 4.23 mills. That means the owner of a $100,000 home would save $50 in taxes.

The difference in the millage rates stems from how much Wagner and Fitzgerald claim is the overall assessed value of property in the county.

Wagner says the overall assessed value is $79.6 billion. She contends the county is on track to collect an extra $30 million to $38 million in taxes.

Fitzgerald maintains that the county's overall assessed value is $71.2 billion. He's relying on a decrease in values estimated to come from thousands of outstanding appeals from property owners. When property owners win reductions in their assessment through appeals, that lowers the county's overall assessed value.

County manager William McKain said at least 600 high-value properties have appeals pending before the Board of Viewers.

“We have to forecast and account for that,” McKain said. “We're making our best guess estimate.”

Wagner said her number takes into account more than 100,000 appeals that have been decided.

The controller left open the possibility that she would sue the county administration to force it to comply with her proposed millage rate.

She also announced that her office would examine each school district and municipality to ensure it meets the anti-windfall provision.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-320-7886or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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