New Castle News

December 5, 2013

Revised county tax abatement targets downtowns

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Lawrence County’s revised tax abatement program is intended to promote development by providing more tax breaks over a longer period.

The commissioners voted 2 to 1 Tuesday to revise the plan, granting abatements for new development for five years. Chairman Dan Vogler voted against the changes.

The areas eligible for the tax breaks are restricted to any industrial areas in the county and commercial businesses located within a designated central business district of a municipality.

The changes went into effect Tuesday, which was the first time the proposal had been presented in public.

Commissioner Bob Del Signore, who promoted the idea, said county officials will be working with municipalities to define their central business district for the abatement purposes. “We don’t have that done yet.”

Under the former plan, the abatement was 75 percent the first year, 50 percent the second and 25 percent the third for industrial properties only. After three years, the property owner would pay the full amount of taxes.

With the changes, new development will be 100 percent tax-exempt the first year, 80 percent the second, 60 percent the third, 40 percent the fourth and 20 percent the fifth year. After that, the owner must pay the full taxes.

Also under the new guidelines, properties already granted abatements by the county or owners who have secured building permits before Tuesday will be under the previous schedule.

Before Tuesday’s vote, the first time the information was revealed publicly, Vogler explained he would be voting no.

He said he opposes the new plan because he was content with the previous structure. He believes giving a 75 percent abatement rather than a 100 percent break to a property owner the first year was a critical component of it, he said.

“I think there should be an obligation for someone to pay at least a portion of their property taxes.”

Del Signore and Steve Craig voted for the changes.

“We’ve had discussions over a couple of months trying to make sure we’re covering it properly and make sure it’s a plan people can buy into,” Del Signore said Wednesday.

“We” involved the commissioners, county solicitor Thomas W. Leslie and chief assessor, J.R. Hardester, he said.

Those discussions were private.

“I’m not aware of an exception in the Sunshine Act that allows that type of tax policy issue to be discussed privately,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

“The Sunshine Act requires public meetings whenever an agency discusses official business, such as their tax structure,” she continued. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to residents and taxpayers that there are changes to the tax structure.”

Vogler indicated Wednesday that Del Signore was the only commissioner who had had discussions with Leslie and Hardester.

However, he took exception to any suggestion the commissioners could not discuss the matter in their offices.

“The Sunshine Law says we are not permitted to make formal decisions,” Vogler said. “We cannot sit up here and close our doors and not communicate with each other.

“The discussions were done during the course of normal business. We have to go through this process up here. Mr. Del Signore had to have consultation.”

Vogler contends the only deliberation the commissioners engaged in about the tax structure was at Tuesday’s public meeting before the vote, when Del Signore presented the resolution for a vote.

Solicitor Thomas W. Leslie said it is his opinion that “there is a difference between discussions and deliberations.”

However, he said he had never discussed the tax abatement changes with more than one commissioner at a time, and most of his discussions were with Hardester and Del Signore.

“We want to get some investments in the downtown areas,” Del Signore explained Wednesday as the reasoning for the change in the abatement. He added he hopes the municipalities will go along with similar abatement plans.

He said he felt the previous three-year abatement was insufficient. For industries to create jobs, he said, “it’s just not enough.”

Del Signore added a goal of the new program also is to help rebuild the main business districts in the communities.

“It’s going to benefit New Visions and give them something to work with in the downtown.”