Unity seniors could get tax rebates under proposed ordinance
By Stacey Federoff
Published: Friday, July 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Unity Township may become one of the few municipalities in the region to offer a rebate program to senior citizens that fully pays their local property taxes.
After a series of meetings and a senior citizens forum, Unity's tax rebate committee is prepared to present a draft ordinance to supervisors at their August meeting.
“It's not the largest amount of property tax people are paying, but it's a start,” said Supervisor Mike O'Barto, who is chairman of the nine-person committee.
Unity residents ages 65 and older who are eligible for the proposed rebate would have to pay their taxes as usual, then apply to the township for reimbursement for the amount of their local property taxes at 2.2 mills, which averages about $70.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 4,097 people over age 65 live in Unity.
O'Barto said he wants to enact the rebate program to help senior citizens, especially those who are living solely on Social Security benefits and feeling the pressure of rising school district and county property taxes.
“The more people I talked to, they were happy Unity was trying to do something,” he said.
Greater Latrobe School District passed its 2013-14 budget in June, raising the total millage from 76 to 77, meaning an average increase of $26 in next year's bills.
Pete Sepp, executive vice president with the National Taxpayers Union, said other municipalities across the country have such programs in place, often through permission granted by the state.
“It's often a jointly administered type of situation,” he said.
The national group, which advocates for tax reform, in 2011 compiled a list of property tax breaks including rebates or credits and homestead exemptions for groups such as senior citizens, disabled veterans and military members.
Many places have a local option, or “locality levying property taxes has the authority granted by the state government to provide property tax rebate programs at their own discretion,” Sepp said.
O'Hara and Findlay townships in Allegheny County, as well as the City of Pittsburgh and the county, have tax rebate programs, said Michael Foreman, local government policy specialist in the Southwest region office of the Center for Local Government Services.
“It's a way to reduce property taxes for the individuals who for the remaining years of their lives are on fixed incomes,” he said. “It's really to show a convenience to a group of taxpayers that qualify.”
Darlene Upson, a member of Unity's tax rebate committee, said she hopes the township's efforts help other municipalities recognize that senior citizens need help with rising costs.
“Although it's not a lot of money we're going to get back, we're hoping we'll set a precedent,” she said. “They've worked all their lives, and I think they deserve a break.”
Upson, 57, of Lawson Heights, is a leader of Concerned Citizens of Unity Township and got involved after O'Barto solicited public participation on the tax rebate committee.
“We went over the budget and we saw they're capable of (the rebate),” she said. “I thought it was about time someone helped the senior citizens.”
Of the 23,000 residents in Unity, 1,883 surveys sent in January with real estate tax bills were returned. The survey asked for the property owners' names, dates of birth and tax map numbers.
Township officials compiled the average property tax assessment of those who sent back surveys at $22,887. O'Barto said total taxes collected from the survey respondents would amount to $94,812.
Only about 1.8 percent of the township's $5.1 million annual budget would be affected, then, he said, which can be collected elsewhere to make up for the loss.
For example, the township's allocation from the state for oil and gas drilling impact fees is about $60,000 per year, he said. No wells have been drilled in Unity, but the allocation could increase if wells are drilled, O'Barto said.
Senior citizens eligible for the rebate are still responsible for the 1-mil tax that helps fund the township's eight fire departments.
Sepp said the measure is legal because all taxpayers are assessed, but not everyone qualifies for a rebate.
“They're being assessed the same,” he said. “For practical purposes, of course, the end result is that one class of homeowner has a lower bill than another on the same type of property.”
That's why the National Taxpayer Union is more in favor of lower taxes and smaller government, including broad-based limits on property tax assessment increases that would affect each homeowner, Sepp said.
In April, between 75 and 100 people attended the senior citizens forum, some of whom were concerned for working-poor families who also could benefit from a tax break, O'Barto said.
The income limits, set at $36,500 for a one-person household and up to $52,100 for four people, would give relief where it's most needed, he said.
“There are young people out there suffering today as well as old,” he said. “You have to start somewhere.”
Supervisors may vote on the rebate program at their Aug. 8 meeting, scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in the township municipal building at 154 Beatty County Road.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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