LAWRENCE COUNTY Slow growth figures are deceiving, official says

Leaders say they expect to see more industrial growth in next year's tax base.
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- At first glance, it looks as though Lawrence County's tax valuation isn't growing as fast as it did last year.
The tax valuation, or base, which rises when there is new construction, is increasing for 2002 by about $3.2 million, far below last year's $6.2 million jump in taxable property.
However, that's not an accurate picture, county officials said.
Mary Bullano, director of the county assessment office, which keeps track of such things, said there are buildings constructed in 2001 that haven't made it to the county's tax rolls yet because her office was short an assessor for the last four months of 2001 because someone was off on sick leave.
County commissioners hired a new assessor in late December who is now adding those buildings to the county's tax rolls, and those building owners will pay taxes for the coming year, she said.
"We will probably still see an increase of approximately $6 million when we are done picking up all the things that should have been picked up by the end of the year," Bullano said.
Trend: Lawrence County has traditionally seen its tax base increase anywhere from $3 million to $6 million in the last five years, she said. Every community also has property which is tax-exempt, including hospitals, churches and schools. The assessment valuations for those buildings didn't change much from 2001 to 2002.
New construction in 2001 followed the same pattern it has for the last few years, Bullano said. Most of it occurred in new housing, with some small businesses being built, she said.
The largest jumps were in Neshannock and Shenango townships, which have traditionally been home to some large housing plans, but there was building just about everywhere, she said.
"We've picked up residential growth in a lot of different areas, including Scott and Slippery Rock townships. There's been an increase in assessment in just about every single district," Bullano said.
There were a few communities that didn't see an increase in property values; some saw drops. New Castle had the largest drop in the assessed value of its property.
Bullano explained that most of that loss involves people who failed to pay their taxes. That should increase when those taxes are paid, she said.
Business: The biggest commercial growth was in Union Township, where a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse opened last year, she said.
Industrially there wasn't much growth, only the construction of a 60,000-square-foot building for Berner International, an air curtain manufacturer, in Shenango Township that hasn't been added to tax rolls yet.
Bullano noted that that was one of the buildings completed when her office was short-staffed and that it should be added to the tax rolls soon.
More significant industrial growth should be reflected in next year's tax base, said Linda Nitch, director of the Lawrence County Economic Development Agency.
Several new buildings and additions are now under construction, she said.
"The companies here had grown substantially over the last 10 years. They were so busy doing the business they couldn't [physically] expand. As things quieted down ... they could take time to do some building," she said.

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