Blair reassessment gets green light

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Despite earlier stances against reassessment, Blair County commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to move forward with plans to undertake the process last completed in 1958.

“Circumstances change,” Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti said.

When Tomassetti and Commissioner Diane Meling ran in 2007 for their first terms, both went on record against reassessment. And when Ted Beam Jr. campaigned in 2011 for his first term, Beam spoke of looking for other revenue sources as an alternative to reassessment.

But all three voted Tuesday to commit to reassessment and to use the Pittsburgh law firm of Weiss, Burkardt and Kramer LLC for consulting services at $125 per hour. A firm that handles the door-to-door work and related calculations will be selected by commissioners after additional review.

“My concern is that we’re [going to be] out of money … yet there are valuable and important services that we must provide,” Tomassetti said.

“We have to do it now,” Beam said Tuesday. “You need the lead time for it to be ready for use.”

“Our backs are against the wall,” Meling said.

The vote followed the commissioners’ acceptance of a study by the Pittsburgh law firm, which identified a wide range of assessments and property taxes in Blair County.

Commissioners sought the study after reviewing budget projections in January, indicating the county won’t have enough revenue in 2017 to cover expenses. And because of the state’s 30-mill cap on the county’s general fund tax levy, a tax increase would not be an option.

Through reassessment, the county will update 1958 property assessments and set a lower millage that initially brings in the same revenue. Municipalities and school districts will need to take similar action, based on new assessments the county establishes. The process has the potential to increase, decrease or maintain current property taxes for individual parcels.

“Keep in mind that it’s not a given that taxes will go up,” Meling told Alex Priel Jr. of Turkey Valley Road, who attended Tuesday’s meeting and asked commissioners to keep senior citizens in mind.

Priel said he improved his property while he was working. But now that he’s retired, he said he lives on a fixed income and cannot afford to pay more in property taxes.

“This poses a problem not just for me, but all senior citizens,” Priel said.

Commissioners acknowledged Priel’s comments. Tomassetti referenced a portion of the study indicating owners of lower-valued properties, typically senior citizens, are identified as paying more than their share of the tax burden, in comparison to owners of higher-valued properties.

Tomassetti also mentioned that while the state makes the county responsible for establishing property assessments, the county has no control over the tax levies set by local municipalities and school districts.

State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, who represents Altoona and Logan Township residents, told commissioners on Tuesday that he objects to anyone claiming reassessment “is about fairness.” The process, McGinnis said, rewards those who fail to improve their properties and hurts those who do. But McGinnis also acknowledged the county’s lack of future financial resources and said he had no alternative for commissioners.

“This is a political and economic decision that has to be made,” McGinnis said.

Beam commended Tomassetti and Meling for efforts during their first term to improve the county’s financial condition.

“My two colleagues kept reassessment out of the picture for a long time,” Beam said.

“Over the past six years, we’ve worked hard to curb spending,” Meling said.

Those efforts, she said, included privatization of the former mental health, mental retardation and drug and alcohol offices, elimination of the solid waste department with responsibilities forwarded to the Intermunicipal Relations Committee and returning the job of monitoring weights and measurements to the state.

In addition, Tomassetti said the sale of Valley View Home lightened the county’s financial responsibility and cut the county’s workforce by a third.

Anyone who wants to oppose reassessment, Tomassetti said, must decide how to cut public safety services that include the 911 center, the prison, the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office and public recording services.

“We are out of options here,” Tomassetti said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.