Blair splits budget votes

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County commissioners voted 2 to 1 Tuesday in favor of introducing a $55.2 million budget for 2019 keeping real estate taxes at current levels.

The split vote on the tentative spending plan, subject to adoption in December, reflects a difference of opinion over to how address higher-than-typical raises requests from county departments with significant turnover linked to low pay.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr. said they preferred to defer action on higher-than typical raise requests by waiting for results of a salary and job classification study expected to be finished in mid-2019.

But they were supportive of the 2019 budget proposal that includes allocations to cover 3 percent or minimum $1,000 raises for all non-union employees, 2 percent raise for elected officials and the establishment of a $10 per hour minimum wage.

They also indicated that the budget includes estimates to support union-negotiated raises and ones to be set in pending contracts with three groups of county employees.

“My goal here is fairness, both to our dedicated employees and to the taxpayers who bear the burden of funding Blair County government,” Erb said Tuesday in support of his vote.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti voted against the budget introduction after pointing out its failure to include raises to address the ongoing turnover of county attorneys.

A core responsibility of county government, Tomassetti said, has long been the administration of a justice system of behalf of its citizens.

Tomassetti suggested a plan costing $150,000 to improve pay for the county’s law clerks, assistant prosecutors and assistant public defenders and described it as affordable considering that the 2019 budget projects a unassigned general fund balance of $5 million.

But Erb and Beam said they didn’t want to address the attorneys’ salaries.

“Until we receive up-to-date job descriptions, have those graded and classified and receive objective market data with recommendations for a plan to fix the problem, I will not participate in picking and choosing which positions are the most underpaid,” Erb said.

“Each elected official or department head who requested raises for their employees is probably justified in doing so,” Beam added. “However, as a commissioner who is also responsible to our county taxpayers, I feel I am justified in looking at the amount of the increases and making sure what is affordable is what we approve.”

As for the projected year-end fund balance of $5 million, Erb recognizes that figure as an improvement but one that should be around $8 million in case of an emergency.

The county had that kind of balance a few years ago, he said, when the state failed to approve its budget and began withholding payments. While some counties had to borrow money to pay bills, Blair County did not.

Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy offered a budget summary during the commissioners meeting showing that 2019’s revenue projections including state funding at $54.57 million, about $647,133 less than the projected expenses of $55.22 million.

The unassigned fund balance will be used to cover the shortfall.

“This budget is closer to being balanced than any other introduced in the past decade,” Erb said.

The 2018 budget was balanced with a real estate tax increase of 25 percent that provided the county with about $30.7 million in real estate revenue, about

$6 million more than it received in 2107. The 2019 budget shows real estate tax revenue at $30.68 million.

Blair County intends to place 2019 budget information on its website at www.blairco.org.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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