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Politics & Government

Allegheny County Controller Wagner Thinks Harrisburg Should Reconsider

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner is calling on the Pennsylvania legislature to allow local governments to decide if a landowner deserves to be given property tax breaks as a nonprofit entity.

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, “purely public charities” are exempt from the payment of property taxes to local municipalities.  An April 2012 decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court enabled local taxing entities to more aggressively challenge tax-exempt status. 

Senate Bill 4 seeks to reverse the decision of the Supreme Court, removing power from local governments to set their own tax rolls at the very time that many cash-strapped municipalities are facing diminished support from state government.

Wagner, who is a former State Representative, voiced her opposition to Senate Bill 4 and she urged the Legislature to allow decisions on property tax exemptions to be made by local governments.

Not trying to go after “real charities” is an important distinction to make, according to Wagner, who said she does think that there are many charities that feel under attack.

“We’re not trying to go after the folks who are really doing good and doing what they’re supposed to be doing under the law. A ‘purely public charity’ should be doing some sort of work that the government would otherwise be doing, thus taking that burden off of the government – so it’s a test that makes sense.”

Wagner feels that this is a classic example of politics as usual.

“To me, this is one of those examples, even having served in Harrisburg for five years, of everything that’s really wrong with Harrisburg. There should not be the voice of one lobbying group, namely the Hospitals Association (The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania), trumping the interests of literally every taxpaying resident within the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

According to Wagner, what this bill is trying to do is actually quite simple: go back to an era that has existed for about 20 years, where local governments could not assess how a specific property was being used.

“So you couldn’t look at – say a parking lot – and say this really isn’t being used for a charitable purpose, and therefore it should not be getting that privilege of an exemption – a privilege that all of our ordinary residents don’t enjoy.”

In the previous sessions, a variety of local officials and organizations (including the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities and the Pennsylvania State Associate of Township Commissioners) opposed previous efforts to pass a constitutional amendment (then Senate Bill 161). 

Wagner said that it is “incredibly concerning” that an amendment was being “fast tracked” in Harrisburg with little input of the public or local governments, and in absence of any actual evidence that a change to the Constitution of this Commonwealth is needed.

The debate in Harrisburg rages as the debate over UPMC’s tax-exempt status is growing in the Allegheny County Courthouse. 

“[T]he impact of this proposal is so far-reaching, and just so incredibly egregious that this would be even contemplated without any public input, to have a vote coming before the Senate Finance Committee without that public input, really signifies everything that’s wrong with Harrisburg.”