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Brand O Trims Taxes!

But how low can county levy really go?

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Metaphysics freaks are fond of noting that a dropped ball can, theoretically, never hit the ground, because it first has to go half way, then half of the rest of the way, ad infinitum. Well, here's a new question for the ages: If candidates propose 10 percent cuts in Allegheny County property taxes every election, will those taxes someday hit zero?

Republican county commissioner candidates Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer proposed a 20 percent millage cut in 1995, and fulfilled that pledge. County executive candidate Jim Roddey, also a Republican, proposed a 10 percent cut in 1999. He and his campaign manager say they've already trimmed taxes, and hint that the soon-to-be-released 2004 budget will get them to the magic 10 percent. On Sept. 2, Roddey's challenger, Dan Onorato, summoned the media for the now-quadrennial ritual. "We will cut taxes 10 percent, and we will cut county government 10 percent," Onorato announced. "I will do that in my first budget I present as county executive."

Onorato, a Democrat, said he'll make corresponding spending cuts by consolidating services within county government and between the county and City of Pittsburgh, and eliminating some elected row offices. (Some of that is outside of Onorato's control; he can't consolidate services without Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's help, and he can't eliminate row offices without a voter referendum that the courts have said can't occur until 2005.) Onorato also pledged never to increase taxes via a reassessment, as he accuses Roddey of doing. He said he wouldn't conduct the scheduled 2005 reassessment unless several conditions were met first, including state law changes permitting broader tax breaks for senior citizens and homeowners.

That sounds like a prescription for the kind of fiscal angst the county suffered through in the late-'90s, when it burned through some $60 million in savings and sold old tax liens to get by. Still, then-commissioner Bob Cranmer, a Republican, thinks it can be done. "Dan's been around long enough, and I think he has some sound plans," says Cranmer. "If he has the right people around him, he'll pull it off." (Cranmer says he's "out of politics" and not taking sides in the race.)

"Obviously, it's not going to be easy," says Mike Dawida, the Democratic commissioner who worked with Cranmer through much of the late-'90s. "Dan's going to need help from the state and help from the feds. ... He's not going to get a whole lot of help."

The bad news is that even an infinite number of 10 percent cuts will never bring county taxes down to zero. The county currently takes $469 a year on a $100,000 house. Even if every candidate promises and delivers a 10 percent cut, that homeowner will still have to pay $37 annually in the year 2100. This ball really won't hit the ground.

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