Saturday, February 20, 2010

Could Mount Lebanon Merge With Pittsburgh For Lower Property Taxes?

People not on the floor laughing their ass off --stop already- might want to think about it. Most would have laughed that something like this was remotely possible in the 1970's or 80's in the NYC area, and then pretty soon it started happening. Property taxes for individual homeowners in NYC are much lower than those in almost every surrounding area.

The universally held narrative here is one of escape. The city, is poorly run, has terrible schools, old infrastructure, absurd legacy pension costs; a small, fragile tax base and very, very high taxes itself.

This is all, largely true, but peak behind the myths and you find a host of suburbs, especially close to the city in similar financial positions, including the paradise of MT Lebo,a place that bears a good resemblance to the area I spent a lot of my life, Forest Hills, Queens.

Mount Lebanon

"Mount Lebanon was a farming community until the arrival of streetcar lines, the first line to Pittsburgh opening on July 1, 1901[2] followed by a second in 1924. After the arrival of the streetcar lines, which enabled daily commuting to and from Downtown Pittsburgh, Mount Lebanon became a streetcar suburb, with the first real estate subdivision being laid out in November 1901. Further, the opening of the Liberty Tubes in 1924 allowed easy automobile access to Pittsburgh. Between the 1920 and 1930 censuses, the township's population skyrocketed from 2,258 to 13,403. Today, Pittsburgh's mass transit agency, the Port Authority Transit of Allegheny County, or "PATransit," operates a light rail system whose 42S line runs underneath Uptown Mt. Lebanon through the Mt. Lebanon Tunnel, merges with the 47L line in Pittsburgh's Mt. Washington section. Mt. Lebanon's only platform station, Mt. Lebanon Station, is in Uptown Mt. Lebanon; the adjacent Dormont Junction and Castle Shannon stations are in neighboring municipalities. And as of the census[3] of 2000, there were 33,017 people living in Mt. Lebanon."

Mount Lebanon--Great Schools!!

"Mt. Lebanon is well known in the region for its public school system. Mt. Lebanon High School has been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education each of the three times it requested certification: 1983-84, 1990-91, and 1997-98. The other schools have been awarded with similar frequency. The High School is also widely recognized for having one of the best fine arts departments in the nation.[citation needed] Mt. Lebanon School District plans to replace or renovate the High School by 2010.[citation needed]

Keystone Oaks High School is physically located in Mt. Lebanon, serving the youth of the adjacent communities of Greentree, Dormont and Castle Shannon. Seton-La Salle Catholic High School, a Diocese of Pittsburgh school, is also physically located in Mt. Lebanon.

The Mt. Lebanon Public Library, founded in 1932, is funded almost entirely by the municipality and county. Its home is a $4.2 million building, with shelves for 140,000 books, seats for 165 persons, and more than 50 public computers. When the building opened in 1997, it won an architectural design award and was featured in the architectural issue of Library Journal. Circulation is 563,000 items/year, and attendance averages 111 per hour."

Forest Hills

The neighborhood is home to upper-middle class residents, of whom the wealthier residents often live in the neighborhood's Forest Hills Gardens area. Historically, Forest Hills has been home to a large Jewish population, with more than ten synagogues located in the area. The community of Forest Hills was founded in 1906; before that, the area was known as Whitepot. In 1909, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, who founded the Russell Sage Foundation, bought 142 acres (0.6 km²) of land from the Cord Meyer Development Company. The original plan was to build good low-income housing and improve living conditions of the working poor. Grosvenor Atterbury, a renowned architect, was given the commission to design Forest Hills Gardens. The neighborhood was planned on the model of the garden communities of England. As a result, there are many Tudor-style homes in Forest Hills, most of which are now located in Forest Hills Gardens. However, there are currently a number of Tudor homes in particular areas of Forest Hills outside of the Gardens. What is credited as the world's first radio commercial offered homes in Forest Hills.

The southern part of Forest Hills contains a particularly diverse mixture of upscale housing, ranging from single-family houses, attached townhouses, and both low-rise and high-rise apartment buildings. South of Queens Boulevard, the Forest Hills Gardens area is a private community that features some of the most expensive residential properties in Queens County. It was subject to restrictive covenants until the mid-1970s.[3]

Forest Hills Gardens was named "Best Cottage Community" in 2007 by Cottage Living Magazine. The adjacent Van Court community also contains a number of detached single-family homes. There are also attached townhouses near the Westside Tennis Center and detached frame houses near Metropolitan Avenue. Finally, there are a number of apartment buildings scattered throughout the community. The most notable high-rise apartment buildings are The Continental on 108th St, Kennedy House, the Pennicle, and the Windsor.

The main thoroughfare is the twelve-lane-wide Queens Boulevard. Metropolitan Avenue is known for its antique shops. Forest Hills is easily accessible by subway, rail, bus and car. The commercial heart of Forest Hills is a mile-long stretch of Austin Street between Yellowstone Boulevard and Ascan Avenue, where many restaurants, boutiques, and chain stores are established. Restaurants are diverse; diners can find nearly any cuisine they desire.

Forest Hills has the multiple-link Forest Hills–71st Avenue express New York City Subway station at the intersection of Continental Avenue and Queens Boulevard. The local 75th Avenue stop is also in the area, and some entrance/exits of the express Kew Gardens–Union Turnpike station service the southeastern portion of Forest Hills. The neighborhood also has a commuter train station, the Forest Hills station of the Long Island Railroad, where Continental Avenue and Austin Street meet."

Forest Hills-- Great Schools!!

"In June 1998, US President Bill Clinton cited Forest Hills High School, "academic and extra-curricular excellence" - and it became one of only 124 "Blue Ribbon" schools nationwide. In 2000, US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the commencement address.. Jacob J. ("Jack") Lew, a 1972 graduate of FHHS, was then the Clinton administration's Director of the Office of Management and Budget, having been elevated to the post two years earlier."

Anyway, Forest Hills is considerably more densely packed with apartment buildings along Queens Blvd, built from the 1940's on and has a much larger population and while it had a history as a mostly Jewish and white ethnic area, it is today much, much more diverse than MT Lebo. Forest Hills is also more walkable and less car dependent.

Still the resemblance is very strong.

Both upper middle class commuter suburbs- built around medium capacity transit (Forest Hills, gardens was built when there was only the Long Island Railroad and I think street car lines)

Both, "Idyllic" with heavy doses of "garden city" and English Tudor.

Both reasonably walkable (not many big hills in Forest Hills)

Both have thriving shopping districts

Both, intensely proud of good local schools.

However, one massive difference puts them world's apart. Forest Hills, is part of NYC and attracts many former Long Islanders sick of nose bleed property tax rates.

Mount Lebanon has the opposite problem. Blog Lebo put this quote from a Allegheny Institute policy brief titled:

Mount Lebanon Schools Becoming A Taxpayer Nightmare.

"In this budget forecast scenario a Mt. Lebanon household with the municipality’s 2008 median income of $77,167 and owning a home with the median value of $190,000 – that is correctly assessed – will see school real estate taxes go from the current $4,580 to $6,437, assuming the home’s assessed value stays at its current level. This will be accompanied by a $385 per year earned income school tax, more if the household is fortunate enough to have its income increase over the next five years.

Then there is the earned income tax paid to the municipality along with property taxes to the municipality and county: another $2,400 per year – assuming municipal and county tax rates do not rise. In sum, under the projected tax increases the owner of a median value house could be facing well over $9,000 in local taxes each year by 2015."

I don't want to push this idea too far but it does show that a denser, more transit oriented Pittsburgh, with a larger mix of private employers, would in theory provide a much better deal for the average residential taxpayer. It's what's happened in NYC.

Be back with more thoughts and supporting evidence on this general subject.

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