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Blair County leaders debate home rule charter

Residents have option to consider other governmental setups

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. is taking a stance against changing the setup of county government through pursuit of a home rule charter.

“If this idea is going to fly, it’s going to have to do it without my vote,” Beam said.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said he believes there is a lot to learn about the home rule charter process, including advantages and drawbacks.

“I want sufficient time to research and to get a sense of what our citizens think,” Erb said.

Blair County residents have the option, through state legislation governing home rule charters, of considering other governmental setups to replace the current form of county government directed by three commissioners with the support of elected row officers.

It’s an option that should be pursued, Commissioner Terry Tomas­setti told fellow commissioners during a weekly meeting in late October, because the current set-up has permitted long-term problems to develop and turn into serious financial consequences.

“After 50 years of operating under a small, outdated form of government, it’s clear that this no longer works,” Tomassetti said.

After taking time to review Tomassetti’s report, Beam said he came to a different conclusion about Blair County’s government under the direction of three elected commissioners.

“I think it does work, at least in this county,” Beam said. “And I don’t think having a home rule charter would have made any difference in the county’s financial problems.”

Tomassetti’s conclusion is partly based on the premise that it is less expensive to identify and address problems sooner as opposed to later. Had the county had a governing body in place that would have pursued timely reassessments, regular maintenance of the courthouse and contributed regularly to the pension plan, Tomassetti said those pursuits would have cost the county less.

But those issues didn’t become problems because of the form of government, Beam said.

“They became problems because the people here in office chose not to handle them at the time,” Beam said. “Were they being mean-spirited or derelict in their duties? I don’t think so.”

“Prior county commissioners had reasons for making the decisions they did,” Beam said. “Yes, they did delay reassessment for 58 years and an earlier decision might have made our reassessment project less expensive. But we’ve gotten over that hurdle, and now we have to do what’s right.”

Reassessment, Beam said, allowed the county to establish a tax base that can reasonably pay for services with current tax revenues, not tax revenue reflective of 1958 values.

“We told the taxpayers that the new base would give us room to operate, but that we shouldn’t spend it all in just a few years,” Beam said. “I think we have lived up to that commitment, and we should continue to do that.”

Tomassetti, recalling last year’s decision to increase real estate taxes by 25 percent and the previous year’s decision to increase taxes by 10 percent, said he sees history repeating itself without change.

County government has become larger and more complex over the years, Tomassetti.

“I heard that from (then incumbent Commissioner) Donna Gority on my first day in office,” Tomassetti said. “And she was absolutely right.”

Under a home rule charter, Tomassetti said he envisions a county government operating with independent legislative and executive branches, as now exist in the state and federal governments. Such a setup, he said, would generate more checks and balances and greater debate, an improvement over a system that requires only two votes in favor to make decisions affecting $60 million in public services.

Beam has plenty of questions about that kind of set-up and its costs.

“A county executive would probably demand a salary well into six figures,” Beam said. “And he/she would undoubtedly need a full-time secretary. An assistant or two is not out of the realm of possibility. … How about the legislative council made up of five to seven members? Are they elected at large or from districts? What is the cost for each of them? They’re not going to serve for free.”

Answers to those questions that would fall to a home rule study commission that would be elected by Blair County voters to work on a county charter that would be up to voters to enact.

To move toward that direction, county commissioners would have to vote in favor of composing an ordinance, asking voters if a commission should be formed to study the current form of county government and replacement options. Tomassetti said he’d like to see commissioners approve the ordinance next year, in time to get the question on the November ballot.

Despite Beam’s stance and Erb’s desire to do some more research and gather input from the community, Tomassetti said he is moving forward with his pursuit. He said he has already met with the Blair County Chamber of Commerce and its legislative committee. He said he also intends to present the idea to other political and social organizations.

“He’s probably going to push this proposal for his remaining 14 months in office and beyond,” Beam said. “That’s OK and that’s his right. My opinion is that it isn’t necessary and the people of Blair County don’t want to change. If I’m proven wrong on that, then that’s OK, too.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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