Allegheny County budget balances on the details
No savings, new revenue or cost-cutting measure is too small to count as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and his finance team finalize a budget for 2016.
Fitzgerald will present his budget to County Council next month and hopes a property tax increase won’t be part of it.
“The goal is always to try to do without (a tax increase), but I haven’t seen the numbers yet,” Fitzgerald said this week.
Increased revenue from property tax in part has allowed Fitzgerald to grow the county’s budget by more than $55 million since taking office in 2012, without raising the tax. Municipalities and school districts, including Pittsburgh and city public schools, raised millage rates at least once during that time.
Fitzgerald has backed higher fees for parks, court records, real estate documents and other county services. He trimmed county departments and contracted with private companies to run a restaurant at North Park and the ski hill at Boyce Park. That helped him to cobble together about $20 million each year to keep up with inflation.
“A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a challenge. Every year, it’s a challenge.”
The county has benefited from residential and commercial development. Even without raising the property tax, the county took in $20.6 million more during Fitzgerald’s first term.
Taxable property in the county increased by $15.9 billion since 2012. Residential and commercial developments in parts of Pittsburgh, Mt. Lebanon, Pine, Ross, McCandless, Moon, Upper St. Clair and Bethel Park have accounted for about $5 billion of the increase, according to the Office of Property Assessment.
Allegheny County expects to collect $344.2 million in property tax this year to fund part of its $839.2 million budget. The county forecasts $351.6 million in property tax revenue for 2016 and $354.9 million in 2017.
Money from property taxes in surrounding counties remains flat. Butler County increased its revenue by $2.7 million since 2012, when the county collected $38.1 million. Its 2015 budget is about $60.8 million.
Washington County’s tax revenue increased about $280,000 between 2013 and 2015. It expects to bring in $36.1 million this year for its $82 million budget.
Westmoreland County collected $79.7 million in property taxes in 2011. This year, that tax is projected to generate $81.3 million. Commissioners haven’t increased the property tax in a decade, though spending increased $16 million.
Westmoreland’s tax rate of 20.99 mills is likely to remain when the 2016 budget is finalized in December. All three commissioners are up for re-election in November.
“I have no desire to raise taxes,” said Commissioner Tyler Courtney.
Commissioners for decades adopted budgets in which spending outpaced revenue. That deficit was offset with a surplus fund, which this year is expected to dwindle to about $19 million.
Allegheny County Council last voted to increase property tax in December 2011. Urged on by Fitzgerald, who resigned as council’s president to run for his first term as county executive, the council increased the rate from 4.69 mills to 5.69 mills for 2012. The owner of a home assessed at $100,000 paid about $100 more in property tax.
In 2013, a court-ordered reassessment increased the assessed value of many properties in the county. Council voted to drop the millage to 4.73 to avoid a windfall from the reassessment, which isn’t permitted under state law. Tax bills for many property owners, however, did not drop.
The millage has stayed level since. Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, expects no property tax increase for 2016. Finnerty, who chairs council’s Budget and Finance Committee that will begin budget hearings next month, has been a big part of keeping the budget in line.
“We’re pinching pennies — nickels, actually,” Finnerty said.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or [email protected]. Staff writer Rich Cholodofsky contributed.