SUGARLOAF TWP. — Tom and Robin Weber told a forum Friday that high taxes have made it difficult for them to keep their cattle farm in Hunlock Creek.
The Weber farm is 105 acres largely used for their 20 head of cattle to graze. Their taxes are based on several things, but the most disturbing to them is the amount they are assessed for the “potential use” of the land.
The Webers say they pay for a potential use they would never opt for because, if they did develop the property, they would lose the acreage necessary for their livestock to feed.
Weber and about 40 other farmers attended Friday’s Farmers Breakfast, held at Tom’s Kitchen on Route 93 and sponsored by state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township. Toohil said she is working on legislation to protect farmers.
“I have to work a full-time job to pay to keep the farm,” Tom said. “We have no interest in developing our land. If we did, we would have to give up farming. This farm has been in operation since the 1600s.”
This was the second annual Farmers Breakfast organized by Toohil, who told the group that she has three chickens on her property that provide fresh eggs for her family.
“But I’m no farmer,” she said. “That’s why I invited you here to hear your concerns and get a better understanding of your situations. I want to do what I can to help you grow your businesses.”
The Webers could enroll in the state’s Clean and Green Program, which would lower their property taxes. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Clean and Green is a preferential tax-assessment program that bases property taxes on use values rather than fair-market values. This ordinarily results in a tax savings for landowners.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted the program in 1974 as a tool to encourage protection of the Commonwealth’s valuable farmland, forestland and open spaces. More than 9.3 million acres are enrolled statewide.
But the Webers said the program is not for them because if they enrolled and then later decided to sell the property, they would have to pay five years of back taxes that were saved under the program.
“We decided to go against it because it basically ties your hands of doing anything with your property,” Robin Weber said.
The Webers feel property taxes should be eliminated for people over 65 and reduced for all others. She said there are other ways for the state to raise revenue.
“Property taxes for people over 65 should stop,” Robin said. “They’ve paid enough.”
The Webers asked Toohil to fight in the state legislature for alternatives to property taxes. And they said nobody should have to pay an excessive amount of tax on farmland that isn’t developed.
“Taxes should be based on what the land is being used for, not for its potential,” Tom said.
Toohil agreed and said she would seek legislation in Harrisburg that would exempt farmers from some of what she said were unfair taxes.”
Matt Balliet, director of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and a resident/farmer from Drums, said land should be taxed on its current use, not its potential use.
“That’s just one issue facing farmers,” Balliet said. “The high cost of energy, transportation issues and unsafe bridges are other issues we are addressing.”
Dan Naylor, eastern regional director for the Department of Agriculture, said Pennsylvania farmers export $1.7 billion worth of goods each year. He said 17 percent of the state’s dairy products are exported annually. There are 63,200 family farms operating in the state, Naylor said.
Toohil also said there are thousands of deficient bridges and roads in Pennsylvania. She said it’s critical to the state’s economy to get them fixed.
Toohil talked about a company that was interested in building a yogurt plant in Pennsylvania, but the weight capacities of the roads was a determining factor in the company choosing to locate in New York. Toohil said the company noted that more, lighter truckloads of materials would have to travel to Pennsylvania, making it much more costly.
Toohil said she is constantly looking for alternatives to property taxes, such as gaming funds and lottery proceeds.
“Why do we have to subsidize the horse racing industry and not the 85-year-old property owner who can’t pay her property taxes?’ Toohil asked.
Toohil said with a Republican legislature and governor, “Now is the time to get things done.”