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Leaders: Blair budget cuts too much

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County’s elected leaders and department heads said Monday that they cannot make the deep budget cuts commissioners asked for last week to balance the 2020 draft budget.

While some departments are preparing to forward a few additional budget cuts — at levels far short of the requested amounts — a group of 13 leaders and supervisors said Monday that they cannot meet the commissioners’ request for deeper cuts.

And the public should be aware, they agreed, that if deeper cuts are made to their budgets, public services will be reduced and public safety risks will surface.

“They want me to take $1.4 million out of my operations budget?” prison Warden Abbie Tate said. “I’ve already taken $1 million (in expenses) out, and we still have a lot of safety risks to address.”

District Attorney Richard Consiglio said he’s being asked to cut $83,700 in expenses — 44 percent of the department’s non-salaried expenses. With a cut like that, he said he won’t have enough money to bring in an expert for a homicide case heading to trial in 2020.

“If we cannot do what we need to do, that hurts our chance of getting justice for the (crime) victims,” Consiglio said.

Commissioners, who are responsible for introducing and adopting a balanced budget annually, received expense requests for 2020 totaling $62.39 million from department heads and elected officials.

As of last week, that total was scaled back to $57.24 million. Some cuts were made as commissioners reviewed budget requests with department heads and elected officials.

Other cuts were made as commissioners opted to reduce department allocations for office supplies, staff training and equipment repairs.

Commissioners also ag­reed to factor in a staff vacancy rate that recognizes money saved when an employee departs and it takes time to hire a successor.

Still, the last version of the 2020 draft budget showed expenditures about $3.5 million more than anticipated revenue, an amount prompting commissioners Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr. to ask departmental supervisors for monetary budget cuts.

In a letter prepared Monday, President Judge Elizabeth Doyle told commissioners the latest budget cuts are impossible for divisions of the county court system.

“For the magisterial district courts, you are asking us to cut $34,000 from the MDJ (magisterial district judges’) general fund budget that was already reduced to $35,232.94,” Doyle wrote.

That budget, according to Doyle, helps pay for the law books used by the magisterial district judges, minimal travel expenses in case a senior district judge is needed and carbonless paper used in documenting the office’s notices and actions.

“These are all essential items needed for the functioning of the offices and would directly affect the public who uses them,” Doyle said.

On a request to reduce the budget for jury costs, Doyle said that she doesn’t want to remove money set aside to cover the cost of involving another judge and staff in the jury selection process. Before the additional judge and staff were added, the county went through a jury selection day that lasted until 8 p.m.

“I am sure your office received complaints about that,” Doyle said.

The president judge also pointed to budget cuts likely to trickle down to those involved in court proceedings.

“We need $237,400 for counsel for criminal defendants; you already cut that amount to $198,400,” she said. “We need $187,200 for Children, Youth & Families counsel, you already cut that amount to $165,680.”

Sheriff James Ott said cuts to his department’s budget have left him worried about keeping the courthouse and the courtrooms safe.

For 2020, Ott said he budgeted $50,000 to send five deputies to the state’s required 19-week training, but the current draft budget has cut that item to $20,000. And as of last week, the sheriff said he is being asked to cut $125,500 more from his department’s budget.

“Then we’re going to be cutting into public safety,” the sheriff said.

Register/Recorder Mary Ann Bennis said she tried to give commissioners “an honest budget” made up of actual expenses and realistic estimates. Other elected officials including Prothonotary Robin Patton and Coroner Patty Ross said they did the same.

“No one here is trying to pad their budget,” Doyle said.

Controller A.C. Stickel said he asked for $250 in uniforms that his department staff could wear next year when it hosts the statewide county controllers association conference. It was been removed, he said.

Stickel also identified $3,400 in response to the commissioners request for $9,000 in budget cuts. To get to the $3,400, the controller said his cuts included a reduction in travel and lodging so one person instead of two can attend a training conference.

But that can be a penny-wise and pound-foolish tactic, Doyle said, because it’s usually at conferences where county staffers can pick up ideas for grants and other savings.

In wrapping up her letter, Doyle told commissioners the county court “understands, appreciates and joins in the commissioners’ efforts to keep the cost of basic judicial functions as low as possible.”

“But we cannot function with the cuts you have requested,” she wrote.

Alternatives to avoiding budget cuts would include increasing real estate taxes or the use of reserve funds to cover the difference between revenue and expenses.

“The court will support your efforts,” the judge said, “to find other sources of revenue that properly fund the courts, as mandated by law, and deserved by the citizens.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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