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Armstrong commissioners votes to lessen tax sting of Clean and Green

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 1:06 a.m.

Some participants in Armstrong County's Clean and Green Program will see their property taxes climb, but not as drastically as once expected.

In a 2-1 vote, the Armstrong County Commissioners agreed on Tuesday to base the Clean and Green Program tax on 2007 assessment rates, instead of the forecasted 2014 rates, said Jeanne Englert, director of the county's Tax Claim Bureau.

Englert said using 2007 assessment rates will decrease the expected Clean and Green Program increase by approximately 40 percent.

“The board agreed to compromise, and are using the 2007 values, which are somewhat lower than what was expected for 2014,” Englert said.

County officials plan to use 2007 assessment rates through 2015, and revaluate the program in 2016, when the state Department of Agriculture plans to make changes to the program, Englert said.

Chairman Dave Battaglia was the dissenter. He argued that any changes to the Clean and Green Program should be revenue-neutral, to make sure taxes are collected in a uniform manner from all county property owners.

Some participants in the Clean and Green program saw their tax bills drastically increase in June, when the county switched from 1997 tax assessment to values determined for 2014, Battaglia said.

The state's Clean and Green program is a preferential tax assessment that bases property taxes on use values for agricultural and forest land meeting specific criteria rather than on fair market values.

In general, properties must be at least 10 acres and be designated for agricultural use, agricultural reserve or forest reserve.

Commissioner Rich Fink said county officials are at fault for the drastic increase in taxes through the Clean and Green Program. He said officials did not raise the assessment values annually on properties in the Clean and Green program, which would have avoided a dramatic increase.

“If we do nothing, we're continuing to recognize a tax shift that, in my opinion, is outside of the true intent of a preferential tax for our agricultural community,” Fink said. “It's out of whack because we, as a county government, haven't taken any action since 1997 (when the last countywide property reasssessment was done).”

The county needs to finalize the changes to the Clean and Green program's assessment values and send out notices to property owners by Nov. 15 to allow a 40-day appeal period, Englert said.

“Time is seriously of the essence,” Englert said.

John Bennett, president of the Armstrong County Farm Bureau, said farming is a $50 million industry in Armstrong County, which is only going to be damaged by increased taxes, possibly driving local farmers out of business.

“The county's tax base has eroded, but not on the backs of our agricultural community,” Bennett said. “It began eroding when businesses started leaving, but the farm community can't leave — we're a sitting duck.

“Things like this create a serious dent in my bottom line, which makes me not sure if I can even do this.”

Landowner Val Houston, who is enrolled in the Clean and Green Program, said county officials have not been fair and equitable when establishing Keystone Opportunity Zones, in hopes of attracting industry to Armstrong County.

In Keystone Opportunity Zones, multiple taxes, including state corporate net income tax, state capital stock and foreign franchise tax, state personal income tax, state sales and use tax, local earned income and net profits tax, local business gross-receipts, business occupancy, business privilege and mercantile tax, and local property, sales and use taxes are waived.

“Everyone would love to have a tax break, but you're doing it on the back of the agricultural community,” Houston said. “You cannot, in one hand, levy a tax on the farm community to the point you're breaking their backs, and on the other hand, throw out these (Keystone Opportunity Zones), which are tax-exempt parcels of prime real estate.

“That's not fair or equitable.”

Currently, 4,855 properties are enrolled in the Clean and Green program in Armstrong County, and the average increase is approximately $300 per property, Englert said.

County property owners enrolled in the program will see a dramatic increase in their taxes next year, as the county adjusts to rates set by the Department of Agriculture, which could have brought in an estimated $441,663 revenue increase for the county, and an additional $984,817 for the Armstrong School District.

Despite the reduction of the 2014 assessment rates to the 2007 assessment rates, Templeton resident Daniel Lynch said the 60 percent increase in taxes leaves him feeling victimized.

“I still feel like I'm standing in a dark alley someplace, and somebody's holding a gun to me saying, ‘Gimme your wallet,' taking it from me, and telling me, ‘it's not enough,'” Lynch said. “Pennsylvania is the land of taxes, and it's only getting worse.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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