Home rule, salaries top list at chamber breakfast meeting

For the second time this week, the topic of home rule came up at a local meeting.

On Tuesday, former Altoona Mayor William Schirf told the Blair County commissioners that he is recommending they initiate a study to see if home rule would be more beneficial for the county than the current form of government.

The topic came up again Thursday during the commissioners annual appearance at the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club.

“I think home rule is an issue we need to talk about. I agree with Mayor Schirf,” said Commissioner Terry Tomassetti, who asked fellow commissioners in October to consider voting in favor of a referendum to ask voters if they favor the forming of a government study committee.

Tomassetti said in the present county government, the executive and legislative powers are entrenched in a three-member board of commissioners.

“That is too much power for them,” he said.

He said home rule would provide for a strong, independent executive branch with a preferably elected or appointed county executive.

“What we have is the old caretaker form of government. It is something that simply needs to be addressed,” Tomassetti said.

Tomassetti’s colleagues, Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr., are not as excited about the idea.

“I never thought about it until Terry brought it up. I’ve talked to people. I don’t believe the current form of government is broken; any form of government is determined by the quality of the people serving in the government,” Erb said.

Beam was ill and absent from the breakfast, but former Com­missioner Donna Gority filled in for him and read from Beam’s prepared remarks.

“I will not support a vote for the commissioners to put it on the ballot. The current form of government is working in 59 of 67 counties in Pennsylvania,” Gority said.

Erb said the issue will not die even though Tomassetti is not running for re-election.

“It will never die; there is always a second option to put it on the ballot,” Erb said.

Voters could ask to have the question placed on the ballot, but it would require about 2,200 signatures, Erb said.

Commissioners also touched on the issue of salaries and benefits. The county has been plagued by training employees who then quickly leave their jobs for higher paying positions elsewhere.

Felice and Associates of Greensburg is in the process of conducting a salary study for the county.

“Up to three years ago, I worked in the private sector. I was surprised to see the job classifications and salaries. What we face now is not the fault of any Board of Commissioners; we have a system that is inadequate. Many salaries are very low, and we need a professional and objective analysis. We can’t fix the problem until we have updated job descriptions. We expect the results this summer,” Erb said.

“As far as benefits, the county already has a good benefit package for its employees. There is no need to change the county benefit package at this time,” Gority said.

Commissioners also discussed efforts to replace the county’s voting machines, purchased in 2006.

In February, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered counties that planned to replace their electronic voting systems to buy machines that leave a paper trail, a safeguard against hacking.

“Ted’s primary response is our voting equipment is 10 years old. It is now breaking down on a regular basis; finding parts has been difficult,” Gority said. “Hopefully the federal government will help pay for it. We have $1.5 million from a 2017 bond issue to help pay for it.”

“We are looking for a way to minimize the cost of it. We are working with the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission to see if we go together we can get a better price. It is a huge expense, another unfunded mandate,” Erb said.

On another topic, Tomassetti said the number of appeals regarding tax reassessment dropped significantly in 2018.

He and fellow commissioners Erb and Beam endured reassessment-related criticism that erupted after property owners started receiving new assessments in 2016 for use in preparing 2017 tax bills.

In 2016 there were about 10,000 appeals. The number in 2017 was less than 1,200, and in 2018 there were about 630, Tomassetti said.

Tomassetti is not sure if or when another reassessment may be conducted. He previously suggested it may be good to do it every eight years.

“There is no requirement legally that it has to be done every so often. We have undergone a significant growth with technology and equipment, but we continue to have a problem with retaining employees because of low salaries. Salaries are problematic in maintaining employees, the skill and the ability to do their work well. Being prepared for future reassessment is a problem because of salaries and retention issues,” Tomassetti said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.