Blair’s 2019 budget figures up for debate

Commissioners hope to keep real estate taxes at current level

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County’s latest draft of the 2019 budget reflects the possibility of real estate taxes staying at current levels. But it also includes a lot of figures that are subject to change.

With two public budget meetings planned for next week, commissioners made no promises Wednesday while making decisions that led to a nearly balanced budget and the removal of $5.3 million in expenses.

This draft of the budget contains a lot of numbers that are subject to change and in need of further review, Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy cautioned.

Commissioners agreed while acknowledging their desire to adopt a 2019 budget with no increase in real estate taxes.

“That’s my goal,” Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. said.

“I think we all have that goal,” Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said.

To get to the nearly balanced budget on Wednesday, Sleppy had to use a 2 percent annual raise instead of 3 percent as shown in an earlier draft.

And after commissioners, in a 2-to-1 decision, declined to honor department heads’ requests for raises beyond the annual salary increases. Multiple department heads anticipate struggling to retain experienced staff members and repeatedly training new ones.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti previously proposed increasing the starting pay for county attorneys from $35,000 to $40,000. And at Wednesday’s budget review meeting, Tomassetti suggested budgeting some incremental raises for offices with high turnover, which is affecting their work and services.

“It’s something we can’t ignore at this time,” Tomassetti said.

But Erb and Beam said they disagreed because of the county’s ongoing salary study by Felice Associates of Greensburg, with recommendations to be rendered in 2019.

“We know the inequities exist and some salaries are lower than they should be,” Erb said.

Addressing that matter requires “a professional, objective analysis,” Erb said, which Felice had done in 30 other counties.

Beam told Tomassetti that granting additional raises “will mess up that salary study.”

Tomassetti suggested otherwise and proposed “a fair step” in that direction for underpaid employees.

“I don’t think we can pick and choose,” Erb said. “I fear that it will exacerbate our problems.”

Wednesday’s draft budget also reflected a $1.6 million reduction in the county’s portion of support to the Children, Youth & Families office, which receives significant money from the state. If that adjustment is incorrect, the county will have to cover the difference. And while that figure remains subject to review, it might be something that cannot be confirmed until the last minute, Erb said.

Another figure subject to review is a $2.6 million savings on salaries and benefits by estimating a 10 percent job vacancy rate. If the county has an 8 percent job vacancy rate, then the savings would be less and the draft budget would need to be adjusted.

Wednesday’s draft budget does include $585,663 to hire 13 more corrections officers at the prison. That includes $544,044 in salaries, with the rest allocated to benefits and payroll taxes. Those hirings, Erb said, could mean a reduction in the prison’s overtime.

Commissioners have two public budget meetings planned next week.

The first is set for 11 a.m. Monday at the courthouse in Conference Room 2B and the second one is set for

7 p.m. Tuesday at the Northern Blair Recreation Center, 4080 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd. Additional public meetings are planned for 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at Spring Cove Middle School, 185 Spring Cove Drive, Roaring Spring, and at

7 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Blair County Convention Center.

By holding public budget meetings this month, commissioners hope to attract budget-related comments and ideas. Last year, suggestions came in after commissioners introduced a budget in November with a 25 percent increase in real estate taxes.

After the forthcoming public meetings conclude, commissioners will have time to make budget-related changes, Erb said. The annual introduction of the spending plan, he said, is scheduled for Nov. 13.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.