Blair preliminary budget includes tax hike
County real estate taxes would go up by about 25 percent
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County commissioners are set to introduce a 2018 budget proposal this morning that will increase county real estate taxes by about 25 percent.
Commissioners Bruce Erb and Terry Tomassetti settled Monday afternoon on adding 0.79 mills to the county’s general fund millage for 2018 as a way to increase revenue and build reserve funds.
If that amount remains intact through December when the budget proposal is up for a vote, it will be the largest tax increase since 2007 when commissioners added 7.13 mills based on pre-reassessment property values.
For 2017, the first year that property taxes were calculated with values assigned through reassessment, the county levied 3.135 mills on property owners, which included 2.805 mills to support the general fund, 0.299 mills to cover the county’s debt payment, 0.019 mills in support of libraries and 0.012 mills in support of parks and recreation.
If tax rates for debt, library support and park/recreation millages remain at 2017 levels, the county’s proposed increase of 0.79 mills means its tax levy of 3.135 mills will increase to 3.925 mills. On a property with an assessment of $100,000, that increase means a property owner’s county taxes will go up by $79, from $313.50 to $392.50.
“We have considered our options, gone through budget line and after budget line and tried to be realistic,” Erb said Monday as the latest budget meeting concluded. “We’ve been cutting expenses, but we also need to change past practices.”
Erb has faulted prior commissioners for failing to make annual pension contributions and for failing to keep up with building maintenance and repairs, both of which are adding to the county’s expenses.
The proposed budget includes a $4 million payment toward the pension fund using revenue from property taxes. While the 2017 contribution was $4 million as well, half of the $4 million set in 2017 was covered by the remaining Valley View Home sale proceeds set aside for the pension. All of the 2018 pension fund contribution will be paid by the county’s general fund.
Commissioners have been steadfast in support of a $4 million pension payment, which accounts for about 13 percent of the county’s real estate tax revenue.
“I didn’t create that pension fund obligation, but I’ve been trying to solve it,” Tomassetti said.
Prior commissioners elected not to make contributions to the pension fund for about a decade when they had trouble balancing the budget and believed that the fund’s investment earnings would eventually make up the difference. Tomassetti and former commissioners Diane Meling and Donna Gority agreed in 2009 to change that practice by electing to set aside $200,000 toward the pension.
Besides the pension, three other sizable increases surfaced for review during Monday’s session.
Inmate medical care at the prison is budgeted for $1.1 million for 2018, an increase over the 2017 budgeted expense of $875,372. Expenditure reports also show this year’s expenses coming in under budget at $754,000.
Erb, who is part of a prison board committee that prepared a proposal outlining desired inmate medical care for use in soliciting plans and costs, said he wouldn’t change the projection because the solicitation asks for more care, including a third-shift nurse and more mental health services. The budget line also includes expenses the county incurs when inmates are hospitalized.
Two sizable increases noted in the coroner’s budget were for autopsy and toxicology services.
While autopsy costs were budgeted at $35,000 for 2017, they’re estimated to be $130,000 by the end of the year. And toxicology services, estimated at $10,000 for 2017, are expected to be almost $50,000 by the end of the year. For 2018, the budget allocates $120,000 for autopsy reports and $60,000 for toxicology services.
Coroner Patty Ross said both are linked to the increase in local drug-related deaths and the law allowing prosecution of those who supplied the drug leading to death. It also reflects deaths in the trauma unit at UPMC Altoona hospital where victims of motor vehicle accidents are transported.
Ross also took commissioners to task for adjusting the 2018 deputy shift pay to $75 instead of $80 as she requested.
Ross said it’s been years since her deputies have had a raise and she asked that their shift pay, for an eight-hour shift, be increased from $70 to $80. They deserve at least that much, she said, for the effort they make to do a job exposing them to all kinds of environments and conditions.
“And you want to pay my guys less than $10 an hour. … No, it’s time for a raise,” she said.
Commissioners showed no interest in adjusting the $75 figure set at an earlier budget meeting.