Early budget shows $1.7M deficit

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County commissioners said Thursday that they will try to avoid increasing real estate taxes for 2014, even though preliminary budget figures show expenses exceeding revenue by $1.7 million.

The county has enough money in reserve to cover the projected deficit, Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti said.

But commissioners still need to make an effort to reduce the $1.7 million deficit and keep it from growing in the future, Commissioner Diane Meling said.

Commissioners Thursday held the first of two budget hearings in preparation for introducing a tentative spending plan at their Nov. 12 meeting. A second hearing is scheduled Monday at the courthouse.

A year ago, commissioners approved a 3.5 mill increase to balance the 2013 budget. It was the first increase since 2007, when the county imposed a 7-mill increase to balance the budget.

Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. said his goal is to adopt a 2014 budget without a tax increase.

Finance Director Robert Kuntz, who has been working with department supervisors and directors to prepare a proposed 2013 budget, said commissioners would need to increase real estate taxes by 2.6 mills to cover the $1.7 million deficit. But they’re restricted, he said, to levy only as much as 2.5 mills because of the state’s 30-mill cap on millage to support the general fund.

The commissioners other options, Kuntz said, would be to decrease expenditures or to use reserve funds.

The county has $6.2 million in an unreserved fund balance, Kuntz said, a figure that includes $3.8 million owed to the county’s general fund from Valley View Home operations. Because the county sold Valley View earlier this year, $3.8 million is available from the sale proceeds to wipe out the debt. While commissioners have acknowledged the option, they’ve not yet voted on it.

Nevertheless, just having the availability of that cash, as opposed to an IOU, creates a greater comfort level if commissioners would decide to cover the deficit with the unreserved fund balance, Kuntz said.

Preliminary budget figures, subject to change, show the county’s 2014 expenditures estimates at $44.48 million, which includes a possible 13 percent increase in health insurance, an estimated $100,000 to demolish deteriorating properties held for lack of tax payments, anticipated increases for child welfare supervision and foster home care and higher operating costs at the 911 Center.

While 911 Director Mark Taylor submitted a 2014 budget of $1.31 million, which was $77,832 more than the 2013 budget, he apologized for the lack of uncertainty associated with the department’s figures.

While the state collects fees from telephone service subscribers to support the 911 centers, Taylor said the amounts being collected and allocated to 911 centers are falling short of current expenses.

As people give up wired phones in favor of wireless phones, the revenue continues dropping, Taylor said.

Meling said she recently testified before state lawmakers about the need to increase fees that haven’t changed since the 1980s, when the state introduced a $1.25 monthly fee in support of 911 centers. The state later added a $1 monthly fee for cellphones.

In addition, 911 centers are faced with the expense of keeping up with technology, so they have the ability to accept text messages, Taylor said.

Kuntz also suggested the county forego its annual routine of securing a tax anticipation note in early 2014, which would save an estimated $40,000 in interest payments. Instead, he suggested using proceeds from the Valley View sale to cover the early bills, then setting tax revenue to replenish those proceeds.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.