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Allegheny Council boosts property relief to 25 percent

| Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2001

PITTSBURGH: Low-income senior citizens in Allegheny County could get a 25 percent property tax break this year.

County council voted unanimously Tuesday to increase the tax relief offered under Act 77 from 10 percent to 25 percent.

Act 77 gives tax breaks to homeowners who are 60 or older, have an annual income of $30,000 or less, and have owned property in the county for at least 10 years.

The law previously called for a 10 percent tax break. Now their county property taxes will be cut by 25 percent.

The increased relief will cost the county $1.8 million.

County Executive Jim Roddey earlier indicated he would not support a plan that doesn't cut spending, too. County Manager Robert Webb said he did not know whether Roddey would veto the measure.

Last year, slightly more than 19,000 senior citizens received a 10 percent tax break, which averaged about $30 each.

Under the new plan, the average relief will be $75.

Officials estimate there could be as many as 40,000 seniors eligible for Act 77 relief this year because the criteria was changed. Almost 19,000 eligible applications already have been processed, John Weinstein , county treasurer, said.

Last year, the age limit was 62, the income threshold was $25,000 and the residency requirement was 10 consecutive years in the same house.

But unlike last year, there is a June 30 deadline to apply for the Act 77 relief this year.

Republicans on council, all of whom supported the additional tax break, wanted to reopen the budget and make spending cuts before the additional tax break was approved.

But Democratic council members, council Chief of Staff Guy Tumolo and Weinstein said it was premature to reopen the budget.

Both sides compromised and agreed to revisit the budget by July 1 to see whether it needed to be reopened to make up the revenue loss.

Earlier, county spokeswoman Margaret Philbin said Roddey 'supports expanded relief only if appropriate reductions in expenditures are made.'

Increasing the tax break is crucial in light of the increased property values brought about by a countywide reassessment that took effect this year, council members said.

Republican council members tried unsuccessfully to reopen the budget immediately to ensure spending cuts were implemented.

They proposed a 1.5 percent across-the-board cut in the budgets of row offices and certain departments, with 60.4 percent of the cuts coming from departments under Roddey's control and the remainder coming from row offices, including a $180,829 cut in the sheriff's budget.

GOP Councilman at-large Dave Fawcett of Oakmont said row offices should share in the responsibility of cutting spending.

'Surely, there is room for some budget trimming in these offices for the sake of seniors,' Fawcett said. 'We would hope they would join in a progressive effort to help seniors.'

Councilman the Rev. James Simms, D-Schenley Heights, said any talk of spending cuts is premature.

'I'm not willing to put our services at risk,' he said. 'My Republican colleagues have panicked. I'm not ready to push the panic button over $1.8 million. I say we go forward and we'll know exactly what the shortfall is.'

Added Tumolo, 'If you can't manage a $1.8 million cut in a $639 million budget, you better look for better managers. It's too early to cut the budget $1.8 (million).'

Councilman Tom Shumaker, R-Pine, is wary of cutting revenue without immediately cutting spending.

'Just to cut taxes without balancing your account means the county is going to be bouncing its checks,' Shumaker said.

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