County’s reserve funds dwindle

Blair leaders: Tax increase needed to pay 2018 bills

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The sale of Valley View Home boosted Blair County’s reserve money significantly to $20.6 million in 2014, based on county audit reports.

But in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, commissioners depended on the reserve for higher payments toward its pension fund and to balance budgets where expenses exceeded revenue.

So when it came to balancing the 2018 spending plan estimated at $64.45 million, county leaders displayed information Tuesday showing a reserve of $2.3 million at the end of 2018 if the county levies a 0.79-mill real estate tax increase as proposed.

Without the increase, the county will be $7.08 million short of paying 2018’s bills.

“We’ve been living off our general fund reserve,” Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy said to explain what happened to the $20.6 million.

Sleppy presented information Tuesday about the county’s 2018 budget proposal. Commissioner Terry Tomassetti said the information was prepared to offer a better explanation of the pending plan and the proposed real estate tax increase.

Last week, commissioners settled on an increase that will take the 2017 rate of 3.135 mills to 3.925 mills in 2018.

It equates to about a 25 percent increase in county taxes — the largest since 2007. On a property valued at $100,000, county taxes will be $79 higher in 2018. On a property at $150,000, the higher rate means an increase of $118.50, taking the annual bill from $470.25 to $588.75.

News of the proposed increase has stirred criticism and questions from property owners whose county taxes increased in 2017 by 10 percent to support the general fund. The 10 percent increase was levied in the same year as when the county’s reassessment project generated updated property values for use in calculating real estate taxes.

Commissioners Tomassetti and Ted Beam Jr., who convened Tuesday’s weekly meeting, said they’ve been hearing from local property owners. Those who provided contact information will receive the budget information offered at Tuesday’s meeting, Tomassetti said.

Beam said he has talked to people who are understanding and people who are concerned about the increase.

“Everyone seems to understand the plight we’re in,” Beam said. “But I’m also concerned for those who think they can’t afford it.”

One option, Beam said, might be to reduce the tax increase by reducing the $

4 million allocation proposed for the county’s pension fund in 2018. But Beam said that’s probably “kicking the can down the road,” which would increase the county’s future obligations.

Commissioners heard no public comment on the proposed tax increase during Tuesday’s meeting.

The meeting agenda regularly restricts public comment to agenda items only, and a draft agenda posted online Monday showed no discussion on the proposed budget.

The agenda distributed Tuesday included the presentation of additional budget information.

Tomassetti, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting in absence of Chairman Bruce Erb, said time would have been made available for anyone who wanted to address commissioners about the budget or tax increase.

In Sleppy’s presentation, she acknowledged a $9.9 million increase between 2017’s projected expenditures of $54.5 million and the 2018 budgeted expenditures of

$64.45 million. The major contributors to that difference, she said, are the pension contributions, the prior spending of reserve funds, the desire to end 2018 with a reserve and a $1.8 million increase in wages and benefits, most of which were negotiated with unions representing county employees and range from about 2 to 2.5 percent.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.