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Blair faces fiscal issues

Roads, bridges, prison top concerns

The Blair County commissioners say the county faces a number of financial challenges.

“The pension has been a very large issue that is being addressed. The pension is no longer in the emergency status it once was. The biggest issues we need to concentrate quickly on are the prison and infrastructure of our roads and bridges,” Commissioner Amy Webster said Thursday during the commissioners annual appearance before the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club at The Casino at Lakemont Park.

Webster said the Blair County Prison — built in the 1860s with an addition in 1983 — is a major issue.

“It is a huge burden laid upon taxpayers. There are no federal or state funds to help us with that. The cost is huge. This year’s budget includes $10.5 million for the prison, about one-third of our tax resources. That is a huge concern,” Webster said. “It all comes down to how long can we continue to support this building that has limitations and is beyond full. To build a new prison would be in excess of $40 million. We continue to look to see if we can find any funding streams.”

Infrastructure is the other major issue cited by Webster.

“Infrastructure has a lot of immediate needs as some of our bridges are in critical condition,” she said. “Our roads and bridges are huge concerns because we use them all of the time. They are one of the most visible things to us.

“For us to finance those repairs, there are different funding streams available through the state. They are the primary sources, but some taxpayer money does go into those repairs.”

The commissioners said there is no need to change the current form of government. Former Commissioner Terry Tomassetti suggested switching to a Home Rule Charter form of government.

“Home Rule is not the answer. We can’t get out of

our pension problems by changing our government. It

doesn’t give us a new revenue stream. It doesn’t address the key issues we are facing right now. I don’t think it would solve the issues we are dealing with on a daily basis,” Commissioner Laura Burke said.

“According to a Pennsylvania Economy League study, it doesn’t do anything to decrease expenses,” Commissioner Bruce Erb said. “It is not the form of government; it is those who are in office that determine its effectiveness.”

If Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to increase the minimum wage in Pennsylvania from $7.25 to $12 an hour becomes a reality, it will be costly to the county.

Last year, Blair County raised its minimum wage to $10 an hour for nonunion workers.

“Those are entry-level positions, where we see our biggest turnover. We spend a lot of resources to train staff and then they move on. I think the heart of the question is our ability to be competitive in the job market. If the minimum wage is raised to $12, it would cost the county over $300,000 a year; that would be tough. The county can’t compete with the private sector, but our benefit package is rich,”

Erb said.

The commissioners also agree that another reassessment, a hot topic during the 2019 election, is not on the immediate horizon.

“We don’t know when another reassessment will take place. Our focus is to keep the data as current as possible. We would do more of the work in-house so the cost of reassessment will be lower,” Burke said.

“There are no immediate plans. If we do a reassessment, we want to make it less costly and more effective,” Erb said.

Webster said she has no idea when another reassessment would happen, but “we want to make it more fair to our taxpayers.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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