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Tax-exempt properties cost Butler County nearly $6M in revenue

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:06 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
From left: Pittsburgh Penguins CEO David Morehouse, President and CEO of UPMC Jeffrey A. Romoff, UPMC Executive Vice President Liz Concordia, chairman of the Cranberry Board of Supervisors Bruce Mazzoni, overseer of UPMC sports medicine program Albert Wright, Jr., Cranberry Township manager Jerry Andree , and hockey legend Mario Lemieux, sit together during the groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. With two sheets of ice and a performance training center, the complex serve as a practice rink for the Penguins as well as a home to local youth hockey and public skating.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
UPMC Executive Vice President Liz Concordia speaks during the groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. In addition to having two sheets of ice for skating, the site will be home to the first medical center in the country that will focus specifically on hockey-related injuries and training.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
People and media gather at the future site of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex during a groundbreaking for the complex in Cranberry on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. In addition to having two sheets of ice for skating, the site will be home to the first medical center in the country that will focus specifically on hockey-related injuries and training.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The shadow of the Root Sports television announcer for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Paul Steigerwald, lays across the dirt at the future site of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry during the complex's groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. With two sheets of ice and a performance training center, the complex serve as a practice rink for the Penguins as well as a home to local youth hockey and public skating.

Nearly 3,100 tax-exempt properties cost Butler County about $6 million in property tax revenue each year, said chief assessor Chris Savage.

Tax-exempt properties include everything from churches to cemeteries to schools to housing authority property.

Along bustling Route 228 in Cranberry, several large developments are tax-exempt, including the sprawling Westinghouse Electric Co. headquarters and the under-construction home of the Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School.

UPMC, a nonprofit health care provider and insurer, said it doesn't expect to seek tax-exempt status for its $72 million sports medicine facility being built in Cranberry at Interstate 79 and Route 228.

The vast majority of the 178,000-square-foot building will contain two ice rinks and related offices for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a for-profit business. It also would contain a UPMC clinic that would specialize in concussion treatment, orthopedics and physical and occupational therapy.

UPMC's offices would be such a small portion of the overall complex, “I don't expect us to pursue tax-exempt status,” said Albert L. Wright Jr., vice president of operations for UPMC.

The county contains about 88,900 taxable parcels, which are expected to generate $42 million in revenue just for the county alone based on the county's 24.628-mill property tax rate.

Cranberry has “a fair amount of tax-exempt properties,” said township Manager Jerry Andree, though he couldn't provide the exact number. “We have a lot of churches here, schools, Westinghouse. It's not an insignificant number.”

The county, the Seneca Valley School District and Cranberry agreed in 2007 to create a tax-free zone for the Westinghouse complex along Route 228 for 15 years ending in 2022.

The township's property tax rate is 13 mills, with the revenue to be used for general operation, fire, library and additional services.

Butler County's tax rate is 24.628 mills; the Seneca Valley levies a 112.75-mill property tax.

Butler County, the Mars Area School District, Adams and Valencia agreed to accept a shrinking scale of payments in lieu of taxes, beginning with the 2013-14 school year, from the St. Barnabas Health System, a retirement and health care community. The St. Barnabas Land Trust sought tax-exempt status because of the charitable aspects of its businesses, but school district officials feared they would lose money.

St. Barnabas paid $405,000 to the school district in lieu of taxes in 2012-13; that payment drops to $353,006 in 2013-14. By 2017-18, the payment drops to $243,453, where it remains for five more years.

The county has similar agreements with other retirement communities, including Passavant Retirement Community in Zelienople, Sherwood Oaks in Cranberry and Concordia Lutheran Ministries in Cabot.

County commission Chairman Bill McCarrier said that he's questioned some tax-exempt properties, such as a community center within a housing development.

“I think every municipality needs to look at those properties, and ask them to justify why they're tax exempt,” McCarrier said.

It's an issue that Allegheny County and Pittsburgh have been struggling with for years, saying that they're losing millions in much-needed tax dollars because of entities with tax-exempt and nonprofit status. City and county leaders have been critical of UPMC's tax-exempt status, though not all UPMC properties are tax-exempt.

UPMC has a sports complex on Pittsburgh's South Side, in which its sports medicine clinic is tax-exempt, but UPMC pays taxes on facilities rented to the Pittsburgh Steelers, including team offices, practice fields and training facilities.

In all, UPMC officials said, about 10 percent of the complex is tax-exempt.

The UPMC Passavant-Cranberry hospital complex on Route 19 is tax exempt, but doctors' offices within it are taxed, Savage said.

Savage said property owners have to file paperwork with the county's Board of Assessment Appeals to gain the tax-exempt status. If the property owner doesn't agree with the board's decision, he or she can file an appeal in Common Pleas Court.

For some properties, Savage said, there's little debate and the laws are clear as to who is exempt.

“A church is a church is a church,” Savage said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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