County tax officials forge ahead with tax-break rollbacks
County tax officials held an open house Monday to inform residents of recent changes to the state’s Clean and Green program.
“I don’t think the tax office was meant to be the police” when the law was written, said Washington County tax assessor Brad Boni. “But that’s kind of what has happened.”
Boni and Washington County tax director Debbie Bardella, who also is county recorder of deeds, met with a group of residents at the Eat’n Park restaurant on Oak Spring Road. State Rep. Jesse White, D–Cecil, also participated.
The Clean and Green program was created in 1974 to give farmers lower property rates on lands used for agriculture or forest land. But in 2010 and 2011, state lawmakers passed two amendments to the program in less than a year to address the natural gas boom. That created a loophole allowing some landowners to use their property for industrial purposes without having to pay higher rates.
“It was just a little bit of a change,” said Boni, “but it was a big difference in the way we calculate the tax.”
The 2010 amendment allowed landowners to exclude portions of their property directly used for industrial purposes – such as a hydraulic well pad or impoundment – but retain the tax benefits of Clean and Green on the rest of their property in the program. The 2011 amendment also changed the way information was submitted to regulators.
Now, county assessors are responsible for finding violators and determining how much they owe in “rollback,” or back taxes.
“My people are running all over to try and get enough information because they don’t seem to be able to get it all in one place,” Bardella said.
Bardella said her office has had little help from energy companies, landowners or the state Department of Environmental Protection – which handles the documents the tax office relies on to compile updated assessments. In addition to offering incomplete data on well pads, the restoration documents the DEP uses offer no information on auxiliary structures like parking lots or storage facilities.
But that hasn’t stopped the county tax office from moving forward with a plan to collect what is owed by enrollees who have industrial structures on their Clean and Green properties.
Tax officials have begun sending individualized letters to homeowners enrolled in the program with issues that need to be addressed. Through the use of Google Maps, aerial photography and personal inspections, assessors have been collecting data on properties they know are in violation of Clean and Green requirements so they can send rollback notices.
Their work was made easier by a group of Washington & Jefferson College students. Boni said researchers at the college condensed large chunks of the DEP’s online database while studying the effects of Marcellus Shale energy development on local housing prices.
“It’s a necessary part of the process for us,” Boni said. “They did a lot of legwork for themselves, for something totally unrelated to what we’re doing. But they removed a lot of repetition for us.”
But while the office is making progress, Boni said it isn’t nearly fast enough. He would like the DEP to change the way it offers information to county agencies to give them direct access to documents that have the total acreage of gas developments on individual properties.
“We can get a lot of information from a lot of different places,” Boni said, “but we need a more streamlined way to do it.”