County to research reassessment

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County commissioners intend to make progress this year on efforts that will lead to the first reassessment since 1958.

Commissioners said Tuesday that they want to study what has and hasn’t worked in Indiana County, which is in the midst of reassessment, and in Lebanon County, which wrapped up reassessment in 2013.

Commissioners also said they will consider hiring a consultant this year and possibly decide on a company to initiate the task.

“A consultant may be able to help us hold down expenses,” Commissioner Diane Meling said.

A consultant could provide the expertise and input to get the job done well, Commissioner Terry Tomassetti added.

“We’re not interested in any haphazard approach,” Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. said.

Reassessment, which involves assigning updated property values for the county’s 62,700 parcels, carries an estimated cost of at least $3 million.

While commissioners have not yet identified how they’ll pay for reassessment, they agreed Tuesday that, based on budget projections, reassessment needs to be done and ready to use in 2017.

“It’s looking to me like we’re just about out of options,” Meling said.

The goal of using new property assessments in 2017 is based on financial projections county Finance Director Robert Kuntz explained Tuesday in a presentation at the weekly commissioners’ meeting.

Even if the county levies a 2.5-mill tax increase in 2015 to take the general fund tax levy to 30 mills, Kuntz’s figures indicate the county won’t have enough money in 2017.

That’s the year, Kuntz said, when expenditures will exceed revenue, when there won’t be enough reserve money to cover the difference and when commissioners won’t have the option of increasing taxes. The state’s County Code sets 30 mills as the maximum general fund levy.

Solicitor Nathan Karn added that, based on Kuntz’s projections, 2017 will also be the year when Blair County is forced into making budget cuts.

“You would not legally be able to adopt a budget with a negative balance, so you’d have to cut your expenditures by $1.3 million,” Karn said.

Tomassetti said that would probably have to be realized through labor reductions, which would put public services and public safety at risk. Kuntz said that 58 percent of the county’s budget reflects personnel costs and related benefits.

If commissioners move forward with reassessment and are ready by 2017 to introduce new property values, the county will recalculate its tax levy that year, subsequently affecting how much people pay in real estate taxes.

Those whose properties were undervalued before reassessment will likely receive property tax bills that will be higher. Those whose properties were overvalued should receive tax bills that are less. Those whose properties were correctly assessed before reassessment should be paying close to the same amount of taxes after reassessment.

But another factor affecting tax bills will be the county’s option to take a second vote and adjust the 2017 real estate tax levy to bring in as much as 10 percent more in real estate tax revenue. While reassessment laws initially required the process to be revenue-neutral, the law was later amended so counties could set a levy to take in an additional 5 percent more in real estate tax revenue.

The 5 percent has since been changed to 10 percent, Karn reported on Tuesday.

If commissioners levy a rate that includes the 10 percent revenue increase, then Kuntz said the county will be able to end 2017 with $723,359 to spare from a $46.4 million budget.

While Kuntz said he would be “extremely uncomfortable” with such a limited reserve, commissioners said that’s why the need to initiate reassessment now.

“We can’t continue to put off reassessment any longer,” Meling said.

She and Tomassetti spoke out against reassessment when they sought their commissioners seats six years ago, but both are now advocating the process.

“If we wait … then we’re not doing our jobs,” Tomassetti said.

“If it’s done properly, I think the public will understand,” Beam said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 956-7456.