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Fitzgerald tells Allegheny County nonprofits to justify tax-exempt statuses

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

In the coming months, thousands of nonprofit organizations will get a letter from Allegheny County asking them to demonstrate why the properties they own should continue to be exempt from taxes, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced on Tuesday.

“All of those nonprofits, those tax-exempt parcel owners, will ... have to reapply or resend us some information justifying why they are qualified to be tax-exempt,” Fitzgerald said during a “state of the county” address to council.

“We know that property taxes aren't popular, but we want to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share,” said Fitzgerald, who noted that the action he ordered is the implementation of a law passed by council in 2007 requiring reviews be performed at least once every three years to ensure that a property is used solely for charitable purposes.

Rick Swartz, executive director of the nonprofit Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., said he supports the review.

“I commend the county executive for taking the initiative to even ask the question of these nonprofit groups,” he said. “If we don't even ask, then we are all blindly assuming that every activity occurring with these organizations is automatically charitable in nature.”

Swartz said his organization, which buys and rehabilitates homes for sale to low- and moderate-income people, places all its properties on the tax rolls, even though they likely would qualify for an exemption.

“Just like every other nonprofit group, we rely on public services such as roads, streetlights, police and fire,” Swartz said. County Solicitor Andrew Szefi, who is developing the review process, said the letter likely will outline legal criteria used to determine if an organization's property is tax-exempt and ask for details and documentation to be submitted to prove eligibility.

Szefi said reviews should be fairly easy to perform for organizations such as volunteer fire departments whose sole purpose is to benefit the public.

In announcing the review, Fitzgerald acknowledged “problems with record keeping” in the county's Office of Property Assessment and ordered staffing and other changes in the office in December.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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