Wasting our tax dollars

The observer: Fall ’08
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At one end of a long, rectangular table in an Aliquippa restaurant, a grandmother of 12 sporting a big, blond hairdo was talking about how everyone in Beaver County calls her when their dog is lost. Someone even called at 2:30 a.m. the other day. She wasn’t complaining — she loves dogs and has five of her own

This woman may not immediately fit your picture of an innovative public servant, but Beaver County Treasurer Connie Javens is just that. She takes the job seriously, whether it’s lost dogs orsaving taxpayers’ money.

When she won the first of her five terms, tax collectors in Beaver County’s first-​class townships were still collecting county taxes. With some effort, she consolidated that work into her office, saving taxpayers about $250,000 a year. Some years later, a group of that county’s 52 municipal tax collectors lobbied the county commissioners to try to collect county taxes. For them, it meant more income and perhaps county benefits.

Javens countered with what, unfortunately, passes as a bold idea in Western Pennsylvania. Instead, why couldn’t she start collecting municipal and school taxes as well as the county taxes? She has the technology and all the information. It would save Beaver County more than $1 million a year. It’s done in other places, and, as she said, “It’s a no-​brainer.” Why pay the salary and costs for 52 tax collectors and a series of redundant mailings?

Why indeed?

An observer posed the same question to Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein, who, it turns out, has been trying to bring this kind of good government to the region’s most populous county. Weinstein said he broached the topic with then-​Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy. Weinstein’s thinking: start by consolidating tax collection with the county’s biggest municipality — Pittsburgh — and expand from there. Nothing happened. Mayor Bob O’Connor liked the idea but didn’t live long enough to do it. And Weinstein has approached Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, whom he said is very receptive.

To sketch this out, there are approximately 150 separate tax collectors in Allegheny County. Each of the 132 municipalities has one, as do a portion of the county’s 42 school districts. A conservative estimate is that each costs taxpayers $25,000 a year in salary and mailing costs.

So why not consolidate these services into the county treasurer’s office? Service would not only be cheaper, it would also be better for the roughly 600,000 parcels in Allegheny County. Why should we receive separate bills for county, municipal and school taxes? As Weinstein said, “If you buy five things at Macy’s, you don’t get five bills — you get one. It works in the business community — it can work in government. And it can be easily done.”

Weinstein has good relationships with these tax collectors, whom he said don’t have an easy job. And he would prefer to work with them in effecting change.

To this observer, though, the factsseem simple and outrageous. Allegheny County’s schools and municipalities are wasting in the neighborhood of $4 million a year. Is there a better use for that money?

We get the government we deserve.

So if you want better, do your part: call your local school district and municipality and demand the change. Only with good government will this region deserve investment, prosperity and a bright future.

PQ Staff

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