Erb won’t back home rule referendum

Commissioner says change won’t help county’s finances

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb said on Tuesday that he won’t support a ballot referendum to study a different form of county government.

Despite an initiative by fellow Com­missioner Terry Tomassetti to set up a home rule study group for county government, Erb said his research indicates that neither a study commission nor a home rule charter offer enough benefits for the county to pursue.

“According to the Pennsyl­vania Economy League,” Erb said, “there is no accurate data indicating that county expenses are decreased or services im­proved in home rule counties after a change from the traditional three-commissioner form of government.”

Erb’s conclusion means no home rule referendum will be on the November ballot for county voters.

Tomassetti, in October, proposed initiating a home rule study to explore options for updating how county government is organized. The option of a study could be initiated, he said, if commissioners decided to put the question before voters.

Within a month, Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. took a stance against the request after concluding no change in set-up would resolve the county’s financial problems.

That left Erb to come up with the deciding position.

“If there’s sufficient support from the voters,” Erb said Tuesday, “then they should take the initiative to circulate petitions to gather the necessary signatures to put the question on the ballot.”

This year, that amounts to about 2,200 signatures as calculated under current election law.

During his October presentation, Tomassetti described a home rule study as a way to delve into reasons behind county issues that developed over time and have been expensive to address. As examples, Tomassetti referred to decades passing without countywide reassessment, years without adequate building maintenance and a decade of no contributions to the county’s pension fund which led to significant underfunding. Those and other increasing costs have been connected to the county’s 35 percent increase in real estate taxes in 2017 and 2018.

But Erb and Beam, in declining to support Tomassetti, both concluded that a home rule charter would make no financial difference for Blair County.

“Under home rule, there still would be no option for replacing part of the property tax revenue with a sales tax, for example,” Erb said Tuesday. “So the full burden of funding county government falls on the property owners, with or without home rule.”

And nothing in home rule, Erb added, frees the county from state rules or unfunded mandates that can be financially crushing.

Erb also pointed to an expense of $84,000 that Luzerne County incurred when it initiated a home rule study in 2010 that led to its home rule charter in 2012.

“Even at a modest inflation rate, it can be assumed that a study in 2020 would cost well over $100,000,” Erb said.

Tomassetti said he was disappointed with Erb’s position and statements.

“What’s disappointing is that he is offering no conclusions for the problems we face,” Tomassetti said. “The county governmental system that we have right now doesn’t work.”

But Erb came to a different conclusion.

“While it’s clearly not perfect, three commissioners with different skill sets, professional experience and opinions provide differing perspectives and opinions. That is healthy,” Erb said. “It’s not the form of government as much as it is those who are serving in office that determine its effectiveness.”

Tomassetti said his fellow commissioners are failing county residents by not supporting a referendum to study the county’s problems and alternatives to address them.

“Failing to study is failing to provide any solutions,” Tomassetti said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

COMMENTS