Columnist : Lincoln Institute

 Pittsburgh — The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. today released results of a survey which found that Pennsylvania’s property-tax based system has lost much of its credibility with the very local elected officials who must implement it.
Sixty-four percent of the respondents to the survey of municipal elected officials in Allegheny, Cumberland and Montgomery counties said they did not feel Pennsylvania’s property tax system was fair and equitable to most segments of their communities. That feeling was most pronounced in Cumberland County where 71% of the respondents said property taxes were unfair.
“Local tax reform has become the elusive Holy Grail of Pennsylvania public policy,” said Lowman S. Henry, Chairman of the Lincoln Institute. “Our survey of municipal elected officials in three very different counties found consistent opposition to the property tax-based system and a desire for local government to be given more options.”
When it comes to replacing property taxes as the main source of revenue for Pennsylvania’s municipalities, local earned income and local sales taxes are the most likely vehicles. There was support (63%) among the municipal officials surveyed for a local earned income tax, but only 40% supported the option of a local sales tax.
The Lincoln Institute survey found strong support for a system which would give local municipalities the option of combining property/real estate taxes with local earned income and/or local sales taxes. Sixty-two percent of the local officials in Allegheny and Montgomery counties said they would support a tax system which allowed them to customize a combination of those taxes. That idea was rejected by officials in Cumberland County where only 31% said they would support such a plan.

         Among other findings of the Lincoln Institute survey:

*****         Fifty-eight percent of the respondents said they felt their municipality should maintain its political independence, 39% supported a merger of their municipality with other municipalities.
*****         Sixty-five percent felt it would be cost effective to merge police departments. However, only 52% thought it would be politically possible to do so.
*****         A total of 86% felt more regional cooperation with other municipalities in their geographic area would be desirable. That feeling was strongest in Allegheny County (88%) which has a larger number of financially distressed municipalities than does Cumberland or Montgomery county.
*****         A clear majority, 80%, said tax dollars should not be used to pay for the construction of new sports stadiums. Only 13% felt tax dollars should be used for that purpose. eighty-five percent said a referendum should be held before tax dollars could be spent for new stadium construction.
*****         On the subject of referenda, 69% said a ballot referendum should be held to obtain the approval of voters before any municipal government could replace property/real estate taxes with local earned income or local sales taxes.
*****         Forty percent felt non-profit organizations should be required to pay property taxes (from which they are currently exempt). Of those who felt non-profits should continue to be exempt from property taxes, 72% felt non-profits should pay some type of fee in lieu of taxes.
*****         In Allegheny County, 68% of municipal elected officials would like to eliminate county row offices as elected positions. Their counterparts in Montgomery and Cumberland counties disagreed. Only 46% of Montgomery County local officials and 37% of Cumberland County local officials want to do away with elected county row offices.
Results of the survey were released today in Pittsburgh during a joint news conference between the Lincoln Institute and the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy Research which simultaneously released a study on local government and regionalism. Complete results of the Lincoln Institute poll are published in the January edition of the Lincoln Institute-Sindlinger Economic Report, a quarterly journal of public opinion published by the Lincoln Institute which is a non-profit, non-partisan educational foundation based in Harrisburg, PA.
In conducting the survey, the Lincoln Institute mailed 1,000 surveys to elected municipal officials (city & borough mayors, council members and treasurers, township commissioners, supervisors and tax collectors) in Allegheny, Cumberland and Montgomery counties on Monday, December 2, 1996. By the response deadline of December 20, 1996, 251 valid surveys were completed and returned to the Lincoln Institute for a response rate of 25.1%.