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Projected ’22 Blair expenses reduced

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The deficit in Blair County’s 2022 draft budget was down to about $3 million on Monday when commissioners met to resume their focus on the spending plan.

Since their last budget meeting in October, projected expenses have been reduced by about $1 million to $58.97 million, while projected revenue remained at

$55.96 million.

Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy said the cut reflects savings from a refinement to the job vacancy projection rate and the latest estimate on health insurance costs.

Commissioners, who will convene another budget meeting Wednesday, have targeted

Dec. 3 for introduction of a balanced spending plan and the supporting tax rates.

While much of Monday’s meeting was spent looking for potential budget cuts, commissioners also discussed matters that could add to next year’s expenses.

Two groups of attorneys who handle specific assignments at the county’s request have not had pay increases since 2011, President Judge Elizabeth Doyle and Commissioner Laura Burke reported during Monday’s budget meeting.

“The price of everything rises in a decade, and the price of excellent service to the public from these attorneys has risen as well,” Doyle said. “It is past time for an increase for them.”

Burke said the Children, Youth & Families budget proposes a 20 percent increase in the monthly $1,750 stipend paid to local attorneys who act as hearing officers, guardians and who represent parents in CYF proceedings.

“The attorneys are busier now than they ever have been,” Burke said. “And they’re dealing with more complex cases.”

Commissioner Bruce Erb asked for some data to support the request for the increases but not because he was opposed. The 20 percent increase, Erb pointed out, equates to 2 percent annually over 10 years.

Commissioner Amy Webster also asked for more information on the possibility of state reimbursement to offset the cost of attorneys assigned to represent parents in CYF cases.

Doyle also asked for a 10 percent increase in pay for the five defense attorneys, referred to as conflict panel attorneys, who represent defendants who cannot be legally represented by the public defender’s office.

Those attorneys, she said, are currently earning $2,500 a month.

A 10 percent increase, she said, would take their pay to $2,750 a month, the equivalent of about $15,000 annually.

While the $15,000 proposal wasn’t included in the court’s budget request, Doyle said it needs to be included because the workload for these attorneys is increasing, along with their job opportunities.

“I believe we cannot attract new conflict counsel at the current rate of pay, especially in today’s hiring climate, where the private sector is offering so much more,” Doyle said.

Commissioners are also being asked to consider budgeting more to accommodate an increase in pay for the election poll workers. The current pay, based on a 2015 vote by the county elections board, ranges from $85 to $115, depending on the size of the poll and responsibilities during the 13-hour voting period, plus opening and closing tasks.

Sleppy told the commissioners that Director Sarah Seymour is proposing $150 for a precinct judge and $125 for the inspectors/clerks, which would increase the current expense of $95,000 to about $140,000.

“I personally think we owe this to them,” Erb said.

As for other election-related costs, Erb expressed his frustration with the state’s lack of financial help to cover costs associated with maintaining the voting system as the state requires. Webster agreed.

“As liaison for that office, it’s frustrating,” she said. “We can’t cut anything.”

Commissioners did agree Monday to cut the budget’s Farmland Preservation funding from $100,000 to $70,000 because of a drop in Marcellus Shale revenue. This year’s revenue fell to $71,383 from the 2020 revenue of $103,472, Sleppy reported.

Commissioners also agreed to budget for one replacement vehicle for the sheriff office instead of two at an estimated cost of $100,000 for the pair. The commissioners also agreed that the replaced vehicle can be made available to the prison and cut its budget request for a vehicle.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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