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Act 77: Revenue Sharing in Allegheny County.

For six years, local governments in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, have been the recipients of one of the largest tax redistribution mechanisms in the country. The 1 percent local option sales tax generates more than $72 million for tax relief, spreading the wealth and enhancing the country's competitiveness.

Since the decline of the steel industry, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and the Greater Pittsburgh area have struggled to provide an attractive quality of life and a competitive tax environment to residents. To accomplish this goal, in 1994, Allegheny County implemented Act 77, one of the largest tax redistribution mechanisms in the country. As a result of that act, the Pennsylvania State Treasury will distribute more than $144 million in revenues collected through a 1 percent county-wide local option sales tax for the support of regional assets and tax relief to the county and its 128 [1] municipalities this year.

Act 77 had three essential goals: 1) to supplement funding sources to local assets; 2) to promote intergovernmental cooperation; and 3) to provide tax relief to local municipalities. Act 77 has successfully addressed these goals. First, sales tax proceeds support regional assets like libraries, stadiums, parks, museums, the zoo, conservatory and aviary, and a variety of cultural and performing arts groups. Second, Act 77 has promoted intergovernmental cooperation by helping to fund the county's eight councils of governments.

This article will focus on the third goal of Act 77-providing new revenues to local government for tax relief. Act 77 has successfully shifted burdens away from high property and "nuisance" taxes and onto the sales tax. The act's allocation formula tends to redistribute money from richer to poorer municipalities. Additionally, Act 77 provides tax relief for low-income senior citizens.

The benefits of the sales tax have been widespread and significant. A prominent civic leader has called Act 77 the single greatest change ever to Allegheny County's governance system. While implementation of the sales tax was a long and intricate process, requiring the efforts and active support of numerous experts and civic agency, stakeholder, and elected official leadership, its numerous and obvious benefits make the Act 77 model one well worth consideration by other jurisdictions.


A number of factors contributed to the decision to seek a local option sales tax. First, in 1990, civic leaders in the Pittsburgh region came to the discouraging conclusion that the financial support mechanism for the region's most popular assets was on shaky ground. The City of Pittsburgh, suffering from economic decline, sharp population loss, and ever-tighter budgets, had historically been the sole underwriter for the zoo, conservatory, and aviary even though the majority of visitors came increasingly from outside the city. Likewise, the city provided the only public subsidy to Three Rivers Stadium (home of the city's professional baseball and football teams) even though city residents accounted for fewer than one-sixth of attendees of Pittsburgh Pirates games.

A report by the Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., (PEL) a non-profit, nonpartisan local government research and policy analysis organization, found that the zoo, conservatory, and aviary had been unable to close the gap between their ongoing needs and available public financing. The report recommended the creation of a special county taxing district to support the zoo, conservatory, aviary, and other regional assets through a local option sales tax. [2] An earlier PEL report had come to the similar conclusion that those city facilities generated less than 25 percent of their total operating costs while city subsidies made up the bulk of the difference. The report recommended that Allegheny County help support the assets since non-city residents were their predominant users. [3]

Second, at the same time that local leaders were questioning the fairness and practicality of continued city funding for regional assets, the Pittsburgh region's economic base of heavy industry had severely eroded. A number of towns formerly dependent on the steel industry were suffering from economic dislocation and had begun to fail financially. The fiscal disparity between the county's wealthier and poorer municipalities had been growing since the early 1980s. Civic leaders wanted a local means of providing financial assistance to poorer municipalities.

Finally, local municipalities, and the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County in particular, had overly relied on several tax sources that diminished regional competitiveness. The city amusement tax rate was considerably higher than similar taxes in other cities, and was seen as a deterrent to increased performances and ticket sales. The city's and county's personal property taxes also were seen as uncompetitive. In addition to eliminating administratively expensive "nuisance" taxes (such as per capita taxes), civic leaders hoped to lower real estate taxes.

The Sales Tax Solution

In late 1991, Pittsburgh's mayor asked the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a leading regional civic agency, to engage the private-sector leadership in undertaking the task of rectifying the regional assets funding problem. The Allegheny Conference, using its time-tested skills at encouraging private/public collaboration, advanced special legislation in 1993 that authorized the county to implement a 1 percent local option sales tax.

The sales tax was a good solution to the city's and county's numerous problems. First, the sales tax is arguably fairer than property or per capita taxes. While often viewed as regressive, Pennsylvania exempts the necessities of food and clothing from the sales tax, thus lessening the impact on the poor. Second, the sales tax generates new, out-of-county revenues. It has been estimated that non-residents generate about one of every four Allegheny County sales tax dollars. The sales tax was uniquely positioned to derive revenue for the regional assets from a significant population of non-county users.

On December 14, 1993, the General Assembly passed Act 77. The act authorized the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners to adopt an ordinance establishing a 1 percent local option sales tax. The board exercised this authority on March 31, 1994. The law divided sales tax proceeds into two parts: .5 percent would support the creation of the Allegheny Regional Asset District (ARAD) for assistance to the county's various regional assets, while the other .5 percent would fund tax reform. The ARAD has already been discussed widely elsewhere. [4] The remainder of this article will focus on the tax reform and briefly touch on the intergovernmental cooperation elements of Act 77.

Tax-base Sharing

One of Act 77's key elements was its redistriburive nature. Of total tax proceeds, projected to be about $144.3 million in 2000, half is allocated to ARAD for support of regional assets while the other half, more than $72 million, is distributed between the county and its municipalities (see Exhibit 1).

Half of the amount allocated for redistribution, or .25 percent of the total, goes directly to Allegheny County. As a result of the elimination of the personal property tax, sales tax proceeds are the county's only tax revenue other than real estate and a relatively small hotel/motel tax. The sales tax is projected to generate more than $36 million in revenue for the county this year, nearly 6 percent of its total revenue. The sales tax has significantly broadened and diversified the county's revenue base.

The State Treasury allocates the remaining quarter percent among the 128 municipalities each month. Pittsburgh will get about $19.3 million and the remaining municipalities will get about $16.7 million this year. In 1998, sales tax distributions comprised 2.2 percent of total municipal revenues in Allegheny County. By the end of this year, nearly $200 million will have been redistributed among the county's municipalities since the sales tax was implemented.

The sales tax has been a growing source of revenue, profiting from a strong retail economy and increasingly thorough collections since its inception. In the first full year of the sales tax, about $52.8 million was available for redistribution to the county and local governments. [5] Sales tax growth has averaged 6.6 percent annually. The projected $72 million distribution this year is a 37 percent increase over 1995.

The formula used to determine municipal distributions, while accounting for tax effort, is weighted to favor poorer municipalities. The weighting is a product of relative per capita market values of real property. Each municipality's percentage of distribution is the ratio of its weighted tax revenue to total weighted tax revenues. The state calculates a municipality's weighted tax revenue by dividing its total tax revenue by the ratio of its per capita market value of taxable real property to that of all county municipalities in aggregate (see Exhibit 3). At a given level of tax revenue, lower market value ratios generate higher weighted tax revenues.

Positive Impact

The salutary effects of the distributions to the county's poor municipalities have been considerable. Braddock Borough, for example, once hosted a vibrant steel industry and numerous steel-related jobs. With a reduction in population of 72 percent since 1950, the decline of heavy industry severely reduced its ability to pay for municipal services. Braddock has had one of the highest municipal real estate tax rates and one of the lowest per capita real estate tax yields in Allegheny County for decades. In 1998, its market value ratio to that of Allegheny County was .29. It was declared distressed under a state financial recovery program in 1988 and continues to be one of the county's most financially distressed municipalities.

In 1998, the $149,000 in sales tax revenues allocated to Braddock accounted for nearly 9 percent of its total revenues. It was the equivalent of 15 mils of real estate tax--more than a third of the borough's real estate tax amount. In terms of impact on the expenditure budget, sales tax revenues were enough to cover its street department costs.

Sales tax distributions have had similar beneficial effects in the county's other hard-pressed towns, allowing them to hold down property tax rates and increase municipal services. PEL's municipal financial distress index demonstrates clearly the redistributive nature of the allocations (see Exhibit 4). The median per capita 1994-2000 allocation for the county's 14 most stressed municipalities was $158 compared to $69 for the 11 least stress and $94 for all municipalities.

Tax Reductions Mandated

A key goal of Act 77 was to reduce or eliminate taxes that contributed to an uncompetitive climate relative to other regions of the country by replacing them with a sales tax. As a condition for receiving sales tax proceeds, Act 77 required all recipients beginning in 1995 to eliminate or reduce a variety of taxes.

The law mandated that Allegheny County eliminate its four mil personal property tax for the first full calendar year in which disbursements were received. The city also was obligated to eliminate its personal property tax, levied at a rate of four mils, for the first year. [6] Repeal of the county's and city's personal property taxes resulted in $18 million in tax reductions.

The city also was obligated in the first year to reduce its amusement tax from 10 percent to an amount not to exceed 5 percent. This $6 million tax reduction has benefited event patrons through lower ticket prices and increased use of city venues for sports, performing arts, and entertainment events.

The county's other 127 municipalities besides Pittsburgh, upon adoption of a resolution urging the county to create the ARAD and adopt the sales tax, also were eligible for sales tax distributions. As a condition of receiving sales tax proceeds, these municipalities were required to use at least two-thirds of their disbursements in the first year for tax reductions. Thirteen municipalities eliminated their $5 to $10 per capita taxes. Three municipalities reduced their earned income tax rates.

The greatest tax reduction impact, however, resulted from lowering real estate tax rates. Sales tax distributions and support for county-funded regional assets allowed Allegheny County to reduce its 36.5 mill real property tax rate by five mills in 1995 and by an addition two mills in 1996, a 20 percent reduction.[7]

Of the county's 127 municipalities other than Pittsburgh, all but 12 reduced real estate tax rates, some by nearly 18 percent. [8] While the average municipal tax cut was 1.6 mils, municipalities collectively cut more than 180 mils. Sales tax support allowed real property owners to pay about $7.1 million less in municipal and $62.1 million less in county real estate taxes in 1995.

In addition to general tax cuts, Act 77 required the county, city, and other municipalities to provide tax relief for low-income seniors. Nearly all municipalities piggy-backed on the county's program that froze property assessments at the 1993 level for elderly, long-time property owners with low incomes.

Tax Reductions Remain

Critics of Act 77 claimed that the tax cuts mandated during the first year of distributions would soon evaporate as municipalities, always looking for extra revenues, would reinstitute the taxes they eliminated and ratchet their property tax rates back up again. But this has not been the case.

Municipalities on the whole, although not required to maintain the tax cuts, have not reinstituted former taxes nor raised rates to recapture forgone revenues. The 13 municipalities that eliminated their per capita taxes in 1995 have not restored them. Three additional municipalities eliminated their per capita taxes and have not restored them. The three municipalities that reduced their earned income tax rates have not raised them back again, and in fact, two cut their rates even further since 1995. Neither the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh School District, nor Allegheny County have reinstated their personal income taxes.

Finally, of the 115 municipalities that reduced real estate tax rates in 1995, 86 continued to levy property taxes in 2000 at rates below 1994 levels. Of those 86, 22 municipalities actually reduced their rates in subsequent years to levels below their initial 1995 cut. One municipality that did not change its property tax rate in 1995 has since reduced it below the 1994 level. Allegheny County has not raised its property tax rate since its large cuts in 1995 and 1996. The tax cuts induced by Act 77 have become a permanent part of the Allegheny County local tax landscape.

Commercial Activity Unharmed

Another criticism of Act 77 has been that a higher sales tax will induce shoppers to avoid making purchases in Allegheny County and force them over the borders into neighboring counties. Act 77, however, was designed to mitigate against such a problem. Sales taxes on big-ticket items, such as motor vehicle sales, are tracked to the county of the purchaser, not the location of the dealership. An Allegheny County resident purchasing a car in Westmoreland County still pays 7 percent sales tax on the purchase, with 6 percent kept by the state and 1 percent divided between ARAD and tax relief to Allegheny County and its municipalities. Similarly, the higher sales tax rate is no deterrent for a Washington County resident to shop for a car in Allegheny County because he or she would only pay 6 percent on the purchase.

Neither analysis of county business patterns nor survey research has demonstrated suppression of commercial activity in Allegheny County, nor are increases in commercial activity apparent in neighboring counties as a result of the sales tax. A PEL analysis of comparative retail trade growth for selected SIC categories in Allegheny County and five surrounding counties demonstrated no dampening of the Allegheny County retail economy relative to its neighbors since the introduction of the 1 percent local option sales tax.

Additionally, a survey of retail-oriented businesses and management organizations along both sides of the Allegheny County border concluded that shoppers place a higher value on time than sales tax differentials. Few Allegheny County businesses reported a negative impact on sales because of the additional tax. Likewise, businesses just across the county line did not report increased activity as a result of shoppers avoiding the higher Allegheny County sales tax.

Intergovernmental Cooperation

Another important, but often downplayed, element of the local government assistance portion of Act 77 is its mandatory contributions to councils of governments or other intergovernmental entities or agreements. Beginning with the second year of disbursements, Act 77 has required each municipality, with the exception of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, to annually contribute 25 percent of any sales tax increase over the previous year's distribution to the council of governments of which it is a member or to some other intergovernmental arrangement. This provision has channeled more than $1.1 million to the eight Allegheny County councils of governments and other intergovernmental efforts since 1996. This year, sales tax increase contributions will comprise as much as seven and a quarter percent of some COG'sU total revenues.


Act 77 has strengthened southwestern Pennsylvania in a number of ways. In addition to the improved quality of life as a result of ARAD, the law's local tax relief and local government assistance features have mitigated the county's noncompetitive tax environment and have shifted tax burdens to a significant degree onto residents of other counties and regions. Mandatory allocations to councils of governments and other intergovernmental activities reduce inefficiencies, strengthen local governance and further enhance the region's competitiveness. The redistributive nature of Act 77 has helped to "level the playing field" for Allegheny County's financially weaker municipalities.

Tax base sharing has proved successful in Allegheny County. In considering Act 77 as a model for redistributing taxes to support their goals, other regions should engage a reputable public policy expert to assess potential benefits and limitations. It will be crucial to line up civic agency and stakeholder support and to foster active buy-in from elected official "champions" at the both the local and state level. They should then prepare for a long campaign. The benefits will be well worth the trouble, though, for by spreading the wealth, Act 77 has enhanced Allegheny County's future.

BRIAN K. JENSEN, project manager for the Pennsylvania Economy League. Inc., Western Division, has con ducted a number of studies on the impact of Act 77 on local tax rates and councils of governments. He is a doctoral candidate in Carnegie Mellon University's Department of History. JAMES W. TURNER, Managing Director for the Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., Western Division, was previously the chief administrative officer for the City of Pittsburgh and has long been active in GFOA.


(1.) Allegheny County has 128 municipalities wholly within its boundaries. Two other municipalities char lie predominately in neighboring counties have small parts that cross over into Allegheny County. Those two municipalities do not receive sales tax distributions.

(2.) Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., Western Division, Pittsburgh: Regional Asset Nature of the Pittsburgh Zoo, Phipps Conservatory, and the Pittsburgh Aviary, (Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., Western Division, October, 1990), 36-38.

(3.) Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., Western Division, Pittsburgh: A Regional City with a Local Tax Base, (Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., Western Division, October, 1982), xx-xxii.

(4.) See Government Finance Review, June 1995, pp. 19-22.

(5.) Sales taxes were first collected in 1994 but only during the last four months of the year generating $14.2 million for redistribution.

(6.) Act 77 provided for the City of Pittsburgh to reimburse the Pittsburgh School District for any loss of revenue resulting from the repeal of the school district's four mil personal property tax. The school district chose to eliminate its personal property tax, and the city has reimbursed it annually since then. Repeal of the school district personal property taxes resulted in $4 million in tax reductions.

(7.) The newly elected Allegheny County Board of Commissioners cut an additional 4.3 mils in 1996 but this tax cut was not offset by sales tax distributions or support for regional assets.

(8.) Eight of the 12 that did not cut property taxes either eliminated their per capita taxes and/or reduced their earned income tax rates. Four municipalities, because of exceptional financial circumstances, offered no tax reductions.
Financial Median
Distress 1994-2000 Per Capita
Designation Allocation Allocation
Stessed $19,129,817 $158.12
Strapped 13,260,292 108.58
Stable 150,781,579 87.22
Strong 12,364,148 73.99
Stately 2,284,810 69.08
Total $197,820,645 $94.46


Formula distribution of 25 percent of total sales tax revenue

Distribution to municipality = Total $ available from 25 percent of sales tax x Municipal weighted tax revenue/Aggregate municipal weighted tax revenues

Municipal weighted tax revenue = Municipal tax revenue [divided by] Municipal per capita market value/Aggregate per capita market value
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Article Details
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Author:Jensen, Brian K.; Turner, James W.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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