Real estate tax rate to remain level

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County’s 2014 budget will be balanced with reserve funds so real estate taxes can remain at current levels, commissioners decided Monday at the second of two budget workshops.

But commissioners also acknowledged that if expenses keep outpacing revenue, the county will be forced into reassessment in three to five years.

“I can’t see how we could go beyond five years,” county Finance Director Robert Kuntz said. “It might be closer to three.”

The state permits counties to levy up to 30 mills of real estate taxes for general fund expenses, and Blair County currently levies 27.495 mills.

To keep real estate taxes at 27.495 mills in 2014, commissioners will use about $1.8 million in reserve funds to help cover the predicted $44.5 million in expenditures.

And they could need more reserve funds to balance the 2015 budget.

If commissioners increase taxes to the 30-mill maximum in 2015, that will bring in more revenue but will leave the county about $1 million short of covering expenses, Kuntz predicted.

The scenario prompted Commissioner Terry Tomassetti to ask about reassessment and refer to it as the elephant in the room.

In response, Kuntz offered the three-to-five-year prediction for a process that Blair County hasn’t undertaken since 1958.

Through reassessment, the county would be able to update the assessed value of every property.

Then using the new values, it would be able to lower its general fund tax levy while initially retaining a comparable amount of tax revenue.

As for the 2014 budget, due to be introduced on Nov. 12 and available for public review, Commissioner Diane Meling said she preferred to balance it with reserve funds, drawing agreement from Tomassetti and Commissioner Ted Beam Jr.

Some departmental expenses, they said, are based on worst-case predictions so the budget may balance with less than the $1.8 million from reserve. For instance, the budget includes a 13 percent increase for health insurance, although the county’s insurance broker predicted a 10 percent to 13 percent increase.

Also, the county has $6.2 million in reserve, so even if it spends $1.8 million in 2014, Kuntz said it will still have the typical 10 percent reserve of $4.4 million for a $44 million budget. However, Kuntz mentioned that a conference last summer, he heard that the recommended reserve is now 15 percent.

Commissioners also reviewed the coroner’s budget for 2014 and asked for explanations on increases associated with autopsies, transport fees, morgue fees and cremations. Coroner Patty Ross explained she had to arrange autopsy services with Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, pending the signing of a liability agreement with UPMC Altoona.

The coroner’s 2014 budget also includes $20,660 for renting its Fourth Street and Howard Avenue location, plus utility costs estimated at $4,200. The office moved there earlier this year after the county sold Valley View Home.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.