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Blair asked to clear taxes

Three local bodies request 2019 real estate levies, fees be exonerated

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County commissioners are being asked to exonerate 2019 real estate taxes and related fees on seven properties acquired by three local governing bodies.

The request could have been avoided if these governing bodies — the city of Altoona, the Altoona Area School District and the borough of Newry — asked for and qualified for tax-exempt status upon acquiring the properties, solicitor Nathan Karn recently told commissioners.

Because they didn’t, the governing bodies are now asking the county to forgive 2019 real estate taxes and fees adding up to $2,153.

If commissioners say no to the exoneration, then the properties are at risk of being sold during an upcoming sheriff’s sale of properties with unpaid taxes.

If commissioners say yes to the exoneration, then they could be putting themselves in a position to receive similar requests.

The exoneration requests from the city of Altoona apply to properties at 1110 Seventh Ave. and

714 12th St. County real estate taxes on those properties total $965 and fees add up to $327.

On the Altoona Area School District’s property at 1224 Sixth Ave., the district owes $397 in county real estate taxes and $49 in related fees.

For four properties in Newry described as four right-of-way strips, the borough owes $25 in county real estate taxes. Fees add up to $370, based on $92.50 assigned to each of the four properties.

When the exoneration request surfaced during Tuesday’s commissioners meeting, Karn explained that governing bodies do not automatically qualify for tax exemptions on properties they own or acquire. It’s their use of the property, Karn said, that is typically the determining factor for tax exemption.

After a check with the county’s tax claim office, County Administrator/Chief Clerk Nicole Hemminger reported that the properties are currently exempt, but they weren’t in 2019, the year for which the exoneration is requested.

When the county receives a request from a property owner seeking tax exemption, it typically directs that request to a board of assessment appeals, currently made up of three county residents appointed by commissioners.

If the board grants tax exemption, it usually applies to the current or forthcoming tax year, based on information provided by the applicant. The exemption doesn’t address real estate taxes owed in prior years.

Commissioner Amy Webster told fellow commissioners Bruce Erb and Laura Burke that if the county is willing to exonerate the 2019 real estate taxes owed by Altoona, Newry and the Altoona Area School District, then it should be willing to entertain similar requests from nonprofit organizations.

During the 2017 reassessment project, Webster said there were nonprofit organizations that had their properties put onto the tax rolls and which later secured exemptions that did not apply to their prior tax payments.

“It’s an equity issue,” Webster said. “Why would we be treating municipalities differently from nonprofit organizations?”

Commissioners Bruce Erb and Laura Burke had their own questions on the tax exoneration request that was reviewed during Thursday’s commissioners meeting. The matter is now on hold and slated for a vote at their June 15 meeting.

Erb said he wanted to explore the ramifications of voting against the exonerations.

County leaders agreed that if the properties proceed into the sheriff’s sale for unpaid taxes — and no one buys them — the properties then end up in the county repository.

Polly Cardone, county tax claim office director, said Newry Borough has already indicated that it would allow its narrow strips of right-of-way land to go into the repository — in lieu of paying the 2019 taxes and fees.

Webster suggested the county needs a policy for the board of assessment appeals to use in deciding questions regarding prior taxes. That kind of policy, she said, could ensure that the same standards are used in evaluating exoneration requests.

“We need to treat everybody the same,” Webster said.

Commissioner Laura Burke asked how far back the county should consider exoneration requests.

“If there are multiple past years, I’m not sure that’s in the board of assessments’ responsibilities,” Burke said.

Erb recalled that the county has had property owners wait years before asking for a tax exemption that was granted and applicable to future taxes.

While commissioners were slated to vote Thursday on the exoneration request by the governing bodies, they agreed to put the matter on hold pending further review with Karn.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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