Farmers fuming over Dr. Oz's $50K property tax break
A $50,000 tax break for Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz's $3.1 million Montgomery County home has some farmers outraged over an "unethical" use of a tax relief program designed to support working farms.
A report this week from the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed the taxed assessed value of the celebrity heart surgeon's 34-acre home in Lower Moreland is considered a forest reserve under Pennsylvania's Clean and Green relief program, cutting its taxed assessed value by $1 million and dropping the property's tax bill from $72,000 to $21,473.
"That $50,000 is a transfer of tax liability from him to other members and real estate owners in the township he lives in," said Dennis Wolff, a dairy farmer in Columbia County and former head of the state's Department of Agriculture under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
Wolff was one of a handful of farmers on a press call organized by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party Thursday morning calling Oz's enrollment in the tax rebate program an insult to farmers and homeowners struggling to make ends meet.
"Many of them are not worth over $100 million like Dr. Oz is. Many of them are living are living on fixed incomes. Many of them go from Social Security check to Social Security check just to pay for their groceries and buy their prescription drugs," Wolff added.
Former Bradford County Commissioner Janet Lewis, who estimated her 286-acre farm gets between $5,000 to $6,000 in relief, said Oz was "taking advantage" of the program.
"It shows he has no concern nor any interest in Pennsylvania agriculture. It’s basically a slap in the face to farmers and he’s basically thumbing his nose to Pennsylvania taxpayers," Lewis said.
The tax relief program began in 1974 and essentially acts as a deterrent to farmland development.
“(Clean and Green) was not a program specifically designed to preserve farms as much as it was a program to preserve farmers to give them an opportunity to be competitive in their area,” Somerset County dairy farmer Harold Shaulis said.
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"If you lived in an area that was being developed … your taxes were based on what it could sell for to build a gas station or a Walmart. Clean and Green gave us the opportunity to make that farmland taxed based on what it was going to produce as farm grown," added Shaulis.
Shaulis' 360 acres only sees a little over $1,000 in tax relief from the program, but he noted that development demand in his area of southwestern Pennsylvania is much lower compared to a Philadelphia suburb like Montgomery County.
Oz purchased the property last December from the Academy of the New Church, the educational arm of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, according to county property records.
The property previously held the same farmland tax break under the Academy, but the Inquirer reported Oz had reapplied for the same relief in March.
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Oz's campaign told the Inquirer that the candidate's family is awaiting renovations to finish on the property before they move in. Oz reportedly moved in with his in-laws, the Lemole family, in Bryn Athyn since Republican Sen. Pat Toomey announced in late 2020 that he would not be seeking re-election this year.
The former TV host has faced constant criticism over changing his residency after decades of living in New Jersey. Oz attended medical school in Pennsylvania and his wife's family have been longtime residents of the commonwealth.
"I need somebody in the U.S. Senate that I can trust … not somebody coming from out of state," Shaulis, a registered Republican, said.
'Glorified rental agreement'
Shaulis questioned if an agreement in the sale between Oz and the Academy was a "glorified rental agreement" giving Oz an "escape clause" out of Pennsylvania if he loses the election to Democrat John Fetterman in November.
The agreement includes a stipulation that Oz will “not construct any improvement of structures” on the land and gives the Academy the right of first refusal should Oz decide to sell the property. The Lemole family are also prominent members of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which based its international church in Bryn Athyn.
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Fetterman criticized Oz in a Twitter post Tuesday over the tax break, saying that Oz doesn’t want to live or pay taxes in Pennsylvania, “he just wants our Senate seat.”
President of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate in Pennsylvania, Arthur G. Steinberg, on Thursday issued a statement saying Oz’s tax break also deprived the Lower Moreland School District of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.
“By taking advantage of a tax break on his $3.1M manor that is meant for farmers, not New Jersey TV celebrity quacks, Mehmet Oz is taking money that would otherwise go toward funding public schools. A millionaire who rips off families, students, and teachers to benefit himself is that last person we want representing Pennsylvanians in the U.S. Senate.”
The Inquirer reported that Brittany Yanick, Oz's campaign spokesperson, indicated the home purchase was more than a campaign necessity, saying Oz and his wife had "been hoping to buy (the property) for quite a while."
"Dr. Oz purchased the property in Bryn Athyn, where Lisa's family has lived for over 100 years, and inherited the tax credit as part of the purchase. This is quite the contrast from John Fetterman, who has a history of not paying taxes and has relied on his family to support him into his late 40's. Fetterman continues to get desperate trying to distract from his radical liberal record," Yanick stated in an email to this news organization Thursday night.
A property line of Oz's home abuts the Bryn Athyn border to Lower Moreland.
Oz met with a group of more than two dozen farmers in Erie County in June promising to roll back "rules that don't make sense" and push for energy policies that would help both the state's oil and gas industry and the agricultural industry.
The farmers who joined Thursday's press call, however, said Oz's words were "hollow and inconsistent" and endorsed Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor, in November.
Pennsylvania is one of several key battleground states in the Senate race which could decide party control in Congress. The current Senate is split 50-50, with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the potential tie-breaker. Twenty-one Republican seats are on the ballot this November to the Democrats' 14.