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Roddey warns towns to cut taxes

| Friday, Feb. 22, 2002

Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey warned school districts and municipalities Tuesday to cut 2002 property tax rates to avoid a bonanza from increased property assessments or risk lawsuits from his team of volunteer lawyers.

Roddey said eight private lawyers, whom he declined to name, will take cases for free from citizens whose local government or school district is violating a state anti-windfall law that limits tax collections from reassessment to no more than 5 percent above the previous year.

The Tribune-Review Media Service learned that one of the lawyers is Tom Hardiman, the treasurer of the county Republican Party. Hardiman said he was "coordinating the volunteers" for the county executive. Roddey said the team would be in place by next week.

Roddey said taxpayers can't wait for the state to provide tax relief; they need help now. "In some cases, it may be necessary to bring a lawsuit," he said.

Roddey has pushed communities and school districts - which make up about two-thirds of a typical property tax bill - to cut tax rates. Reducing the tax rate would take the sting out of higher 2002 property values for homeowners and it also would help local governments avoid anti-windfall violations.

While assessments this year rose an average of 11 percent, increases were even greater in some communities.

Last month, Roddey had proposed an 11.1 percent county rate cut, which would have saved taxpayers more than $33 million, but yesterday he said that will have to be recalculated.

He said the county will help communities with projections on 2001 collections, which won't be known until after appeals are completed in May, and projections on 2002 collections, which will reflect successful appeals from this year.

Municipalities approved new budgets late last year and are now mailing out their tax bills. School districts will finalize budgets in June, with bills to go out after that.

The latest development is part of a larger struggle over how best to handle the countywide reassessment.

Roddey defends the 2002 reassessment figures as an improvement over 2001. Council backs a plan to leave the county tax rate unchanged and instead roll back the assessments to 2001 levels, saying many new values are still unfair. Last week, Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. overruled a council effort to do the 2001 rollback itself.

Despite Wettick's ruling, County Council voted 9-6 along party lines Tuesday to sue to have the 2002 reassessment thrown out. Democrats are in the majority on council.

Some municipal officials were taken aback by Roddey's approach.

"I am a little surprised at the county executive in proposing such a drastic measure right out of the gate," said August Damian Sr., solicitor for Penn Hills, Verona and Sharpsburg. "The assessments are in such turmoil and confusion, no one can realize what revenues will be until after the fact.

"Once all the dust settles, localities can adjust the books accordingly and apply any excess revenue to the 2003 tax rate," Damian said.

Wettick, who has handled all cases involving the reassessment, allowed the Pittsburgh Public Schools to use this approach with its 2001 tax rate.

Pittsburgh City Council recently refused to cut its millage rate, saying there was too much uncertainty because property appeals filed in 2001 still aren't resolved.

Council President Gene Ricciardi said Roddey's proposal to ready lawsuits would be "unmanageable" and an "administrative nightmare."

Ricciardi said the city believes it will collect no more than $124.5 million this year, which is less than the windfall cap, based on last year's collection of $121.5 million. He said the city would use any excess money to issue refund checks later in the year, increase the homestead exemption or reduce 2003 taxes.

Some municipalities, including White Oak and Hampton, already have cut millage rates.

White Oak, for example, reopened its budget last week and cut millage by 11 percent, but council members worried how much collections could evaporate under a deluge of 2002 appeals.

"The only thing you can do is guesstimate," council President George Dillinger said at Monday's meeting.

About 20,000 appeals have been received so far, according to the county Office of Property Assessment. The filing deadline is May 31. The deluge of appeals last year wiped out any potential windfall for the county, as well as for most, if not all, municipalities and school districts.

In the Mt. Lebanon School District, where assessments rose nearly 17 percent this year, the board expects to adjust the millage, although it is not clear by how much, said district Solicitor Tom Peterson.

"We are well aware of the windfall limits and will work with them this year," he said. "Everyone is currently dealing with quite a bit of speculation here."

County Controller Dan Onorato, who last week said he was going to put 2002 school district tax rates and potential collections on his Web site in an effort to shame districts into cutting rates, said he was "pleased" Roddey was suggesting the free legal team.

"This only adds to my work. But he isn't doing the accounting," Onorato said.

Staff writers Erik Siemers and Pete Bishop contributed to this report.

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