Councilman’s ‘playbook’ missing a page

All levels of government have experienced instances where an official has sought to defuse criticism by using the excuse that a comment was misconstrued or taken out of context.

In Blair County, Altoona City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh is the latest to use such a defense, claiming that “you can’t assume tone when you read something on somebody’s Facebook page.”

Butterbaugh was reacting to criticism from the county commissioners on Tuesday in response to Butterbaugh’s postings on Facebook calling a recent informational meeting about reassessment a “dog and pony show.”

Referring to the commissioners, Butterbaugh said, “Why can’t they just take a page from my playbook and just admit they’re broke and out of money, as opposed to all this fair share talk?”

There are several problems with Butterbaugh’s expressed opinion. He should have anticipated the commissioners’ reaction and the potential damaging effects to the county’s laudable reassessment effort before he voiced them – although, like anyone else, he is entitled to “put his foot in his mouth” if he chooses to do so.

First, county government isn’t broke. It’s still able to adopt an annual budget minus a crisis scenario such as the one with which state lawmakers currently are wrestling.

Blair’s financial concerns – and the need for a countywide property reassessment – revolve around the state-imposed 30-mill county property tax ceiling. While a commendable limit aimed at protecting taxpayers, it’s an outdated limit for counties like Blair that have failed to keep their property assessments current.

Because Blair is operating with 1958 assessments – the oldest among Pennsylvania’s counties – many properties are being grossly undertaxed while many others are bearing an unfair share of the tax burden.

Butterbaugh wouldn’t agree to sell property he might own based on 1958 housing prices, and comments emanating from him shouldn’t plant misconceptions – however unintended – that the county is being less than honest about what is prompting reassessment.

Actually, an assessments update should be carried out at least every 10 years – not only in Blair but everywhere else.

“If it’s (reassessment) about fairness, then it would have been done a long time ago,” Butterbaugh said.

The fact that there has not been a reassessment for 56 years emanated from the county’s ability to live within the now-outdated state-imposed taxation limit, reassessment’s cost, and past officials’ fear of triggering voter anger that might endanger re-election prospects.

Butterbaugh is correct that the county will need additional tax revenue in the future, but he was exaggerating when he predicted “a free-for-all for our money from every direction.”

Taxpayers’ mood will continue to weigh heavily on future tax-increase decisions.

Butterbaugh was right in urging honesty, but throughout the months that the property action has been at the forefront, there’s no evidence that county officials have been dishonest.

Perhaps county officials misinterpreted Butterbaugh’s comments, and perhaps Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. was too strong in labeling the councilman “two-faced and phoney.”

In the future, Butterbaugh should be more careful in how he presents his opinions.