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Blair prepping for ‘an extremely tough budget year’

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County leaders are expecting to encounter difficulty in building a 2021 budget.

At Tuesday’s weekly meeting convened by teleconference, commissioners said they are beginning to meet with department heads to review 2021 budget concerns and expense requests.

Commissioner Amy Webster said she is recommending that departments try to reduce spending in light of decreasing tax revenue predictions.

“I expect the next couple of years will be difficult,” Webster said.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb echoed that concern and recommended his desire to focus on finding efficiencies.

“We’re dedicated toward solutions that will keep (county) services going without being onerous on the taxpayers,” Erb said.

In June, after a review of the county’s financial picture showed real estate tax revenue initially lagging, then increasing, Erb began meeting with Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy, Assistant Finance Director Sarah Chuff and County Administrator Nicole Hemminger.

“It’s going to be an extremely tough budget year,” Erb said.

While the county is receiving about $11 million from a COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program, Erb pointed out that none of that money can be used to replace lost real estate tax revenue.

The county also has the option of awarding portions of the $11 million to municipalities, small businesses and nonprofit organizations to help them cover qualified COVID-19 expenses and losses.

In addition, the county’s court system is receiving a $90,345 Coronavirus Emergency Relief Grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. Based on the grant application, that money is supposed to be spent on personal protective equipment, protective barriers and computer-related equipment to enhance off-site participation in court proceedings.

Blair County’s most recent audit of the 2019 fiscal year showed the county ending in the black, when revenue exceeding expenditures by $840,188.

To balance the 2020 budget of $56.78 million, Erb and then-commissioners Terry Tomassetti and Ted Beam Jr. settled on a real estate tax increase of 3.79% and the use of almost $1.9 million in reserve funds. That decision was made last November, after they reviewed hundreds of budget line allocations, available through the county’s Munis accounting system.

The real estate tax increase for 2020 was the county’s third increase in four years. Commissioners also increased real estate taxes by 10% in 2017 and by 25% in 2018. No increase was levied for 2019.

It was also reported at Tuesday’s meeting that 252 property owners filed appeals with the county to challenge assessments assigned to their properties. Hearings are to be scheduled in September, Commissioner Laura Burke said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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