If you’re tax delinquent, Allegheny County will no longer hire you
Allegheny County will no longer hire full-time employees who haven’t paid their county property taxes — a controversial policy the county might have a difficult time defending in court if it is challenged, an employment attorney says.
The policy, which took effect Sept. 5 , could present two legal issues, according to Pittsburgh employment lawyer Sam Cordes: Tax payment status rarely plays a role in a person’s ability to do a county job, and it could disproportionately affect job candidates whose incomes are close to the poverty line.
“What you’re looking at here is, generally, financial condition,” Cordes said. “People that have been out of work for awhile are people that don’t pay some of their bills.”
County Councilman Sam DeMarco, R-North Fayette, said candidates who set up repayment plans can be hired.
“It’s not just a matter of they don’t have the money because if someone had at least set up an installment agreement then they’re OK,” DeMarco said. “It’s just folks who are basically thumbing their nose at the system,” DeMarco said.
The policy’s language does not include that exception, however, Allegheny County Human Resources Director Laura Zaspel confirmed exceptions will be made for candidates on payment plans.
Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said the policy should be clearer.
“One of the goals of BPEP is to expand the pool of employment of people of color and, let’s be honest, people of color are impacted most negatively, so we don’t want to adopt a policy that’s going to further exacerbate an already bad situation,” Stevens said.
Stevens said the county should add language to the policy to make it clear that candidates on payment plans are exempt.
BPEP is working to urge state lawmakers to prohibit employers from asking about criminal convictions on job applications — an effort called “ban the box.” Allegheny County removed the box from applications in 2015.
In hiring, public employers in Pennsylvania are not allowed to consider an applicant’s minor charges, including whether they have overdue taxes, Cordes said.
According to the state’s Criminal Records History Information Act: “Felony and misdemeanor convictions may be considered by the employer only to the extent to which they relate to the applicant’s suitability for employment in the position for which he has applied.”
“That’s where they’re going to get in trouble,” said Cordes, referring to the county.
No council vote taken
Since he was elected Allegheny County Treasurer in 1999, John Weinstein has been checking job applicants in his office for overdue taxes, he said.
The process to adopt it county-wide began after the treasurer’s office found 111 of the county’s nearly 7,000 county employees had delinquent taxes, and shared that list with County Council members at DeMarco’s request, Weinstein, a Democrat from Kennedy, said.
The overdue taxes were on nearly 400 properties, totaling about $55,000 when the list was compiled early this year, Weinstein said.
After receiving letters from the county, about half of those employees have paid their overdue taxes in full. The others are on payment plans, Weinstein said.
The hiring policy proposal was originally placed on the Allegheny County Council agenda for the Aug. 29 meeting. DeMarco and Weinstein were listed as sponsors.
But the legislation was withdrawn the day before the meeting because county officials had already adopted the three-page policy administratively, Weinstein said.
Weinstein, County Manager William McKain and Jennifer Liptak, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s chief of staff, met to discuss the policy, Weinstein said.
“We all agreed it was a good idea,” Weinstein said.
Stevens said council should have voted on the policy so it could have been discussed and vetted in a public forum.
The City of Pittsburgh has had a similar policy for years, said Debbie Lestitian, Pittsburgh’s personnel director, but city officials did not know whether City Council voted on it.
How it will work
In a statement, Zaspel said tax status is one part of a larger job candidate review that includes “criminal history record checks, drug testing, and medical screening as appropriate.”
The county plans to check an applicant’s tax payment status only after a candidate receives a conditional offer of employment.
If the applicant has unpaid property taxes, he or she will have seven business days to dispute the finding or to pay the overdue tax bill, the policy states. If the county doesn’t receive a response in seven days, the county can offer the job to another candidate.
The policy applies only to Allegheny County property taxes, not municipal taxes or taxes due in other counties.
County job applicants are not required to live in the county, but once they’re hired, most county employees are required to move to the county within a year if they don’t already live there.
Allegheny County’s millage rate is 4.73 mills, meaning the owner of a house valued at $100,000 would owe the county $473 a year, assuming no discounts or other adjustments.
Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report. Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tclift.