Tax revolt rattles Pennsylvania's Armstrong Co. 25% of residents are challenging reassessment bills

September 08, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

KITTANNING, Pa. - It is a ragged house on a hillside and its owner, a cook who supports his family on $4.75 an hour, doesn't understand why the county wants to nearly double his property taxes at a time when millions of Americans can't spare even a few bucks.

So Terry Stouffer's home has become a flashpoint of "revolution" in Armstrong County, where a new citizens' group is battling local government over a countywide property reassessment that will send taxes soaring just when lucrative manufacturing jobs are diminishing.

Twenty-five percent of county residents are challenging their reassessments. Daily, they trickle into a courthouse of block granite and peeling white paint, hoping to persuade an assessor rejigger the numbers. County officials said that mistakes were made in the assessment and that many bills - including those for people who can take advantage of farming programs - would come down.

Many will not.

In many ways the misfortunes befalling this western Pennsylvania town on the Allegheny River are the same as those troubling hundreds of cities that once forged the nation's industrial backbone. The brick and steel that gave them life are disapearing through mergers, closings and layoffs.

"We're on the verge of revolt," said Tim Mohney, a disabled coal miner and member of the Tax Reform and Ethics Committee. "The industries are gone. The elderly are on fixed incomes. Young couples have to travel out of the county just for $5-an-hour jobs to feed their kids. And now with these new taxes, they'll steal your home. We have a petition signed by 4,300 people who are refusing to pay taxes."

Others are nervous. "One old lady sold all her antique furniture because she's scared she can't pay her tax bill," said Jim Bronder, a towering man with a long gray ponytail and a beard to match. "These people are frightened they're going to lose land that's been in their family for generations."

The prospect of higher taxes has turned farmers' wives, salesmen, glass workers, truck drivers and machinists into antigovernment activists. "We're not rabble-rousers," said Dean Bennett, a retired construction worker with a needle-thin mustache whose property taxes stand to jump from $1,300 to $2,700 a year. "We're law-abiding Americans who have been pushed to the limit."

No one feels the sting of that limit more than county officials and school board members who are enduring the wrath of constituents. "Yes, people are telling me things," said Jack Dunmire, a county commissioner. "They're telling me to look for another job because they won't vote for me again. I think you're seeing this in any former industrialized county in America."

Armstrong County, whose population of 73,478 is scattered amid foothills and farms, is a rap sheet of economic turmoil. The unemployment rate hovers at 10 percent, and more than 11 percent of the county's 40,000 taxpayers are delinquent. In recent years, thousands of jobs have been lost at plants such as Moonlight Mushrooms, Pittsburgh Plate & Glass, and Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Inc. Those jobs - which paid $8 to $16 an hour - have been replaced by service jobs that pay $5 to $7.

The industrial tax base is not the only thing shrinking. Between 1980 and 1990, 13 of the county's boroughs and townships lost 12 percent to 21 percent of their populations. "Look at it like this," Bronder said. "When one McDonald's restaurant is listed as No. 39 of the county's top 50 employers, you know something's wrong."

Things grew worse when the county attempted to shore up its tax base by ordering a property reassessment - the first in 40 years. The assessment is based on a fair- market value, and many homes and businesses hurt by the economy saw their tax bills drop or stay the same. But rural homeowners and farmers were surprised to be informed their properties had risen so much in value while their incomes had tumbled so drastically.

County officials said reassessment brought fairness to the tax rolls, but those facing higher bills started screaming for changes in a tax system Pennsylvanians have long criticized as regressive. The battle began: Armstrong residents formed the Tax Reform and Ethics Committee; circulated petitions; called for Home Rule Charter; threatened politicians; criticized building new high school; and attacked the $50,000 salaries paid to top-of-scale teachers.

Richard McGraw, an auto parts salesman, is still reeling from his tax bill, which like everyone else's will take effect next year. The county assessed his 71 acres with two small houses and a barn at $320,000. That means his taxes will jump from $2,000 to $8,400. McGraw and his wife have a combined income of $35,000. He says he won't pay it, especially because the bank recently appraised the property at $160,000.

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