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Blair OKs budget in 2-1 decision

Webster lone dissent to small tax increase

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County commissioners voted 2-to-1 Tuesday to adopt a proposed $57.48 million budget that imposes a fraction of a mill increase in 2021’s real estate taxes.

While commissioners Bruce Erb and Laura Burke voted in favor, Commissioner Amy Webster voted against the budget.

“I cannot support the general fund budget and accompanying spending plan,” Webster said. “As we just reviewed, it’s funded by a tax increase and a deficit spending plan.”

The 2021 tax increase — from 4.074 mills to 4.097 mills — reflects an increase in debt payments and the reinstatement of the recreational tax levy to offset the loss of tax revenue linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 0.023-mill increase calculates to $3.22 more in real estate taxes on the average residential property assessment of $140,000. That means that county real estate taxes, on a property valued at $140,000, will increase from $570.36 in 2020 to $573.58 in 2021.

Webster’s vote against the budget also reflected projected expenses at $57.48 million, exceeding $55.07 million in projected revenue. To cover the difference, the county will draw on $2.41 million from cash reserves.

Webster, in explaining her position, said she proposed reductions in programs and departments, early retirements and some smaller raises.

She described those ideas as warranted, “particularly in light of the current economic devastation that we’re facing with the coronavirus, which has left many here in Blair County without jobs … and problems paying their bills and taxes.”

Erb countered that when commissioners convened budget meetings, he came up with changes and refinements that reduced the deficit and the tax millage to be levied.

“Many of the things you offered, frankly, were non-workable, undefined and vague,” Erb told Webster.

Erb also took issue with Webster’s position against reinstating the recreational tax millage. A year ago, commissioners eliminated the recreational tax because the hotel tax was generating enough revenue to support Fort Roberdeau, home of the county’s restored Revolutionary War-era fort.

Because of the pandemic, hotel tax revenue has dropped. When that drop was mentioned at a budget meeting in late October, Erb and Burke agreed to restore the recreational tax levy to an amount that will generate about $93,000 for the fort’s staffing and operations. During that budget meeting, Webster suggested the alternative of eliminating the fort’s programs while keeping its grounds open under the care of a part-time security or maintenance employee. She also suggested that perhaps an organization could offer programs at the fort in exchange for program revenue.

Erb then said the county’s reinstatement of the recreation tax will have minimal impact on the county’s taxpayers. At 0.12 mills, the tax levy in 2021 equates to $1.20 for someone with a property assessed at $100,000 and to $1.68 for someone with the average property assessment at $140,000.

During Tuesday’s meeting, after hearing Webster vote against the budget, Erb spoke of the fort’s value to county residents, at the cost of less than half a cent per day for the average property owner.

“Is it worth less than a half a cent per day to provide hundreds of Blair County school children with the opportunity to learn about Revolutionary War history and what it was like to live in Blair County during the earliest days of America, by getting a hands-on chance to participate in it?” Erb asked.

Erb also took the position that for a half cent per day, Blair County residents have access to the fort’s trails for recreation and to the Mountain Lion observatory.

Webster, during the October budget sessions, took the position that ongoing growth of the county’s budget cannot be sustained.

A chart documenting the county expenses shows a 22% increase between 2016, at $47.27 million, and the 2021 projection of $57.48 million. Salaries, benefits, professional services and the county’s retirement fund were identified as significant factors in that increase.

Erb pointed out that in 2016, the county was depending on proceeds from the sale of Valley View Home to support a pension plan that prior boards of commissioners failed to adequately fund. For 2021, the county’s general fund budget will provide $4.75 million for the pension plan. That’s about $2.5 million to $3 million less than recommended, Erb said.

Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy, who developed the budget with input from commissioners and other county leaders, including department heads and elected officials, said Tuesday that no changes were made to the budget since its introduction in November.

She said the county will start 2021 with about $6.9 million in its cash reserve. If it spends the $2.41 million in cash to cover 2021’s projected expenses, then it will have about $4.4 million in cash at the end of 2021, she said.

Real estate tax millage

2020 2021

General Fund 3.676 3.676

Debt 0.377 0.388

Libraries 0.021 0.021

Recreation 0.000 0.012

Total 4.074 4.097

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