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Blair property owners to see tax hike

Pay increase for nonunion workers remains unresolved

After six weeks of angst-filled meetings, the Blair County commissioners agreed Thursday that a small real estate tax increase of 0.149 mill — 3.7 percent — was needed to close a 2020 budget deficit.

The tax increase — as explained by Commissioners Bruce Erb, Terry Tomassetti and Ted Beam Jr. — will mean an estimated tax increase of $14.90 for a property valued at $100,000, or a tax increase of about $18 on a property valued at $120,000, the average assessed value of a home in the county.

Commissioners admittedly had a great deal of difficulty balancing the proposed 2020 budget, and Erb, the present chairman of the board, predicted, “This year’s difficulty is a prelude to what is going to happen in the future.”

He explained that demands on county government for services is “increasing rapidly,” and he emphasized state government is not providing the aid necessary to help the counties meet those demands.

One example, he and Tomassetti explained, involves the court system.

The state years ago created a unified court system and was supposed to provide additional funds to aid the counties in covering the costs of operating the courts.

Instead state contributions have remained stagnant and are nowhere near the $10 million cost of the local court system.

“The demands for county services are increasing rapidly,” Erb concluded.

The county’s primary local revenue resource is the real estate tax, and a few years ago, the commissioners instituted reassessment to update the tax base.

The tax base now is more than $8 billion after reassessment, an increase from less than $1 billion from the 1958 assessment.

After receiving initial requests from department heads and elected officials, the budget requests from the county general fund exceeded projected revenues — without a tax increase — by more than $8.5 million.

The commissioners asked their department leaders to cut expenses, and after initial cuts, asked for even more, but department heads said they couldn’t go any lower.

Prison Warden Abbie Tate complained she cut a million dollars from her budget request and the commissioners wanted more taken out.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle balked at the extent of the cuts being requested as did the Blair County district attorney, the sheriff and the register and recorder.

On Thursday, the three-member board made a last-ditch effort at making cuts in proposed expenditures.

After a telephone conference with Tate, the board agreed to remove another $225,000 from the prison food budget, noting that the hiring of a food service manager at the prison will streamline kitchen operations and eliminate waste.

Tate agreed that $225,000 could be cut from her $1 million food service budget.

Another proposal was to alter the funding for Fort Roberdeau, redirecting real estate tax used for the fort (under parks and recreation) toward reduction of the general fund deficit.

Money for Fort Rober­deau, for next year, will come from the local hotel tax.

One issue that remains unresolved is pay increases for nonunion workers.

The commissioners will not be able to resolve that issue until a salary study is completed, probably during the first quarter of the year.

The county board, in its last steps to close the deficit, agreed to a real estate tax increase and redirecting funds from end-of-the-year reserve toward expenses.

The effort during the past six weeks reduced projected expenditures from $62.3 million to $56.8 million.

The commissioners will introduce their 2020 budget next Tuesday.

Beam thought the small tax increase was “pretty good,” pointing out the county had no tax increase for 2019.

Tomassetti did not run for re-election, and Beam lost in his bid for another term on Tuesday. He blamed the reassessment issue for his loss.

Erb was elected for a second term.

That means there will be two new commissioners on the board in 2020 — attorneys Laura Burke and Amy Webster.

The new commissioners could reopen the budget once they take office, but Burke, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said she would “highly doubt” the new board would reopen the budget.

She attended many of the budget meetings, and she believes the present board took steps to reduce spending.

Webster was not present at the meeting.

Blair County Controller A.C. Stickel, after the meeting, said he is very concerned that the county’s end-of-the-year balance, which is used to pay county expenses during the first weeks of the new year before real estate taxes begin coming in, “keeps whittling away.”

That means the county eventually could be required to borrow to cover its early-year operating expenses, he said.

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