Blair County budget planning shows progress

Pennsylvania counties’ annual budget preparations seldom are as traumatic, contentious and politically charged as what goes on in Harrisburg practically every year.

That’s true even when the first county budget drafts seem extremely troublesome.

Most counties find a way to make cuts and other adjustments — plus tap reserve funds, if necessary and sometimes as a last resort — to balance projected spending with incoming revenues, thereby avoiding the need for a tax increase.

Even when tax increases are necessary, those hikes most times aren’t large — again, most times.

For Blair taxpayers, the 2018 budget proved to be an exception, requiring a 25 percent hike. And it came a year after county property owners — in 2017 — collectively paid 10 percent more to the county in real estate taxes. Because 2017 was the year new assessments kicked in, some real estate tax bills went up, some went down and some stayed relatively the same. But collectively, the county received

10 percent more in revenue from property owners.

Still, on the local front, school district taxes remain the biggest drain on taxpayers’ wallets. But a municipality like Altoona isn’t far behind, and now it seems like the county is beginning to catch up. For instance, consider the 2018 real estate taxes paid on an Altoona property assessed at $165,000.

The owner paid $885 to the Altoona Area School District (after the homestead credit was deducted), $830 to the City of Altoona and $635 to Blair County.

With those kind of real estate taxes, it’s no wonder the county’s initial draft budget showing a

$5.4 million deficit generated concern. And even though commissioners reviewed a nearly break-even budget on Wednesday, that version had too many uncertain figures to guarantee that taxes won’t increase.

On that note, Blair County for 2019 appears in better shape than it was a year ago when the county started the budget-building task with a nearly $9.4 million deficit. But the county should be in better shape this year considering the higher tax payments it has received.

County commissioners are closing in on their goal of having 2019 budget information ready for review on Monday, when they’ve scheduled a public meeting at 11 a.m. in Room 2B at the courthouse.

A year ago, they made a pledge to provide the public with more opportunity to comment on the proposed budget. And after Monday’s meeting, they’ve set up additional public meetings for:

7 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Northern Blair Recreation Center, 4080 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd., 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at Spring Cove Middle School, 185 Spring Cove Drive, Roaring Spring, and 7 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Blair County Convention Center.

After those meetings conclude, commissioners will still have the option of making budget changes through Nov. 13, the date when a tentative spending plan for 2019 is to be introduced.

With budget numbers remaining subject to change, it’s up to Blair County taxpayers to pay attention to what’s going on and to attend a public meeting. Those who feel strongly about county spending and budget developments shouldn’t be shy about making their feelings known.

Understandably, some Blair property owners still are feeling the “sting” of the countywide reassessment and the 25 percent real estate tax increase for 2018.

But remember the tasks assigned to county government. It’s responsible for operating a court system, a child welfare office, a parole and probation office, a prison, a sheriff’s department, a tax assessment office and more.

It also manages thousands of of our public records and thousands of our tax dollars.

Feel free to pay more attention to the budget-building process in Blair County, or any county.

Unlike our state that has a reputation for late budget adoptions, county budgets are usually set in stone by their Dec. 31 deadlines.

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