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Jeannette man questions city's '03 tax hike

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By Richard Gazarik
Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A Jeannette property owner has asked a Westmoreland County judge to order the city to credit or return to property owners nearly a decade's worth of real estate taxes, arguing a 5-mill tax increase approved in 2003 was only for that year, according to a court document.

Thomas E. Burk Jr., 27, of North Huntingdon filed the request on Wednesday, claiming the city has continued to levy the additional tax every year since then without legal justification.

“The city of Jeannette has excessively taxed its real property owners since 2002 and beyond, and excess funds should be credited or returned to property owners,” said attorney Lawrence Burns, who represents Burk.

The filing, which asks for reimbursement or credit of as much as $3 million, adds to the city's growing financial burdens. Jeannette ended 2012 with a $250,000 budget deficit, and officials must decide whether to file municipal bankruptcy or enter a state program for financially troubled municipalities.

Council has to find a way to generate additional revenue to make a $350,000 pension payment and interest due last year for its police officers and a court-imposed settlement of nearly $77,000 and more than $158,000 in legal fees to Jeannette businessman Frank Trigona and his attorney.

City attorney Scott Avolio said he has not read Wednesday's filing, “but the city believes it acted pursuant to authority given from 2003 to the current date.”

In 2003, the city asked a judge for permission to increase real estate taxes 5 mills beyond the mandated limit for Third Class Cities because Jeannette was facing a budget deficit of more than $510,000.

Gary Falatovich, city attorney at the time, argued the millage rate did not generate enough revenue for the city to pay its bills. The city's millage rate is 32.62, and a mill generates $63,000.

“... There is no record of any Court of Common Pleas approval ever sought by the municipality” for the increase, Burns wrote in the court filing.

“There does not appear to be a record of any other petition by the city of Jeannette for approval of its general purpose millage rates that exceeded 25 mills,” Burns said.

He said if the city wanted to continue imposing the additional taxes, it should have sought court approval each year.

Burns also asked the courts to require the city to submit future budgets for court approval.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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