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Council seeks way around tax increase

| Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011

Allegheny County Council on Tuesday moved closer to raising property taxes, though officials still are exploring alternatives with only weeks remaining to approve a budget for 2012.

One council committee delayed a vote on a Republican plan to borrow money instead of raising taxes, and a second committee then voted to extend one of several tax abatement programs that had been in jeopardy. The county's finances are so tight it is hard to find extra money without a 1-mill tax hike, some council members said.

Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, suggested that council scrap its tax-increase plan and instead add $5 million in borrowed money to the $730 million budget proposed by County Executive Dan Onorato. Onorato had asked for $37 million in cuts.

Gastgeb's plan wouldn't restore all of it, but it would give the county enough to get nearly $20 million in matching funds offered by the state for child welfare programs, he said.

"It sure as heck isn't ethical," Councilman Michael J. Finnerty, D-Scott, said at the Budget and Finance Committee meeting. "I don't think this is a great idea."

Chairman William Russell Robinson, D-Hill District, asked Gastgeb to withhold his amendment until the committee's next meeting, Nov. 29. It isn't unethical, but using borrowed money to pay for day-to-day operations isn't ideal, Robinson said. Both he and Gastgeb said the Onorato administration had done that several times, most notably with funding for the ongoing property reassessment.

Gastgeb suggested council cut existing programs to find the $5 million, but in the end determined that isn't possible, he said after the meeting.

The plan to borrow "is a difficult one for me to swallow, but it also might be the best option not to raise taxes," Gastgeb added.

Robinson has spearheaded a group of nine Democrats who support a tax increase in order to avoid cutting community college and child-welfare funding. Because of cuts in state and federal funding, the county may have to cut family, counseling and after-school programs that could lead to job losses for 1,000 to 2,000 workers employed by county contractors, according to the council Democrats.

Instead of raising millage, Robinson had suggested council end some of the $27 million in property tax breaks it gives out every year. But that alternative received a blow from the Economic Development and Housing Committee, which voted yesterday to extend two of those programs through 2013.

The county gives tax breaks to property owners who improve their homes or build new ones, and the full council will vote Dec. 6 on whether to extend them. The programs give incentives for people to improve their neighborhoods, and it would be difficult for council to vote against them, said Finnerty, the committee chair. Council has voted seven times to extend them since they were originally passed in 1996.

"I want to keep everything the way it is," said the bill's sponsor, Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, noting that the committee agreed quickly with little discussion. "That was a gimme."

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