Indiana County proposes 5-mill property tax hike, county-wide reassessment
Indiana County residents could be paying significantly more in real estate taxes in 2013 and beyond.
The Indiana County Commissioners Monday approved a plan to petition Indiana County Court of Common Pleas President Judge William Martin for a 5-mill tax increase beginning in fiscal year 2013. The petition was submitted Monday afternoon, county solicitor Mike Clark said.
A hearing before Judge Martin has been scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Dec. 18.
“Should we proceed and fall short of these expectations (of being granted the 5-mill hike), the county is prepared to seek more drastic measures in achieving fiscal balance,” commissioners chairman Rodney Ruddock said.
The commissioners are set to meet at 10:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to ratify the 2013 budget.
The increase, if approved, would prevent the need for additional tax hikes in 2014 or 2015, Ruddock said.
The board is proposing to follow the move with a county-wide tax reassessment with new property tax assessment rates to go into effect in 2016.
“This will give the county three years to implement a strategic plan to both educate the public and prepare an operational agenda and implementation time line to enact such a reassessment,” Ruddock said.
The reassessment of the county's 46,495 taxable properties is expected to cost $3.5 million and take 30 months to complete.
“Over the last four or five years we have spoken openly about our preparation to take the necessary steps to re-calibrate our millage rate through a county-wide reassessment period,” Ruddock said. “Frankly, we do not have a choice from a pure fairness point of view. Every taxpayer in the county wants to be assured that they're paying their fair share of taxes.”
Ruddock said a 2006 study determined the county's “tax structure is completely out of balance.” The last county-wide reassessment was in 1968.
Counties, Ruddock said, gain no financial edge in a reassessment “except for the ability to recalibrate millage and the applications based upon the new market base.”
“Tax fairness is most important to each and every taxpayer,” he added. “The time is now to begin to integrate this reassessment into our financial strategy.”
The tax hike would boost rates from 32.4 mills to 37.4 mills with the general fund budget receiving the entirety of the increased tax revenue. The 5-mill increase would equate to roughly $61 in added tax responsibilities for the average county property owner. The county's per capita tax will remain at $5 next year, commissioner Patricia Evanko noted.
The county currently uses 25 mills of the tax rate for the general fund with the remaining 7.4 mills going to debt service. The state's County Code requires any tax increase above 25 mills for general fund use to be approved by the county's president judge, Clark said.
Ruddock said the county's ability to provide important and mandatory public services “falls upon the shoulders of our taxpayer.”
“We are still planning for the long haul, but we have hit some bumps along the way,” Evanko said. “In complying with both funded and unfunded mandates placed upon us, funding we were expecting is either being cut or on a very slow road to Indiana County. During this time we still have to supply those services, pay our employees, pay our debts and utilities just like every normal household.”
“We have tightened the belt but we still are not able to balance this budget without a tax increase,” Evanko added. “We do not want to raise taxes, but under the current circumstances brought on partly by the downturn in the economy, a drop in departmental revenues, the federal and state governments' slow funding or unfunded mandates placing an ever-increasing demand on the county general fund gives us no other choice.”
Assuming a 5-mill tax increase, the tentative general fund budget adds $31,292,203 in revenue to an opening balance of $244,107 to match proposed expenditures of $31,536,310.
The commissioners also approved tentative capital and liquid fuels budgets. The tentative capital budget lists $186,000 in expenditures offset by $37,420 in revenue and $148,580 in capital improvements. The liquid fuels budget totals $390,125 in revenues and expenses.
The commissioners also approved an ordinance to refinance seven general obligation notes totaling $45.65 million. Five tax-exempt notes total $35.7 million with two taxable notes adding $9.95 million.
“In addition to the six notes that will be issued for re-funding purposes, one note will be issued for new-money capital projects,” said Mark Lundquist, the county's financial advisor.
The refinancing will be completed through local banks, Lundquist said. Reduced interest rates – 2.54 percent for the first five years with a cap of 3.38 percent on the subsequent five year terms for the tax-exempt notes and between 4.2 and 4.3 percent for the taxable notes – offer the county a net present-value benefit of $1.7 million, according to Lundquist.
The new-money capital projects to be funded in part by the notes will include the completion of the 911 communications project, the completion of the county's commitment to expansion at the Indiana County Jimmy Stewart Airport, and the start of the county-wide reassessment project and process, Lundquist said.
In other business, the county approved the purchase of a surveillance camera for the warehouse area of the county prison at an expense of $928.90 and extended its consultant services agreement with grant writers Gilmore Tragus Strategies for one year at a cost of $65,000 plus incurred expenses.
The county approved the adoption of the Kiskiminetas Valley Greenway, Trails and Downtown Connectivity study, which aims to encourage outdoor recreation in the area surrounding the Kiski River from Saltsburg to Freeport.
The commissioners also accepted a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency in the amount of $3,842 to establish direct connection to the “Commonwealth Law Enforcement Assistance Network” (CLEAN) in the county's probation department and the county jail to expedite the registration of sex offenders as federally mandated by the Adam Walsh Act.
Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or firstname.lastname@example.org.