County right to proceed with caution

Many Blair County taxpayers probably are not happy about the Jan. 7 decision not to reopen the county’s 2020 budget to cut expenses and possibly pare down or eliminate this year’s 3.7 percent real estate tax increase.

New Commissioner Amy Webster sought those moves, but her motion failed to garner a second from commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb or from the other commissioner, Laura Burke, also a newly elected member of the board.

There is an important reason why Erb and Burke were right in deciding not to embrace Webster’s proposal: The two new commissioners need time to gain a full perspective of county operations, both as they exist now and regarding challenges that lie ahead.

An immediate move like the one Webster suggested could have proved counterproductive to the county’s best interests, as well as much more detrimental to taxpayers than biting the proverbial bullet now.

That is not to imply that Webster should be criticized for having put forth her proposal. The county needs a much more in-depth evaluation of its operations than the annual late-in-the-year budget workshops provides.

But, the time between now and Feb. 15 — the date by which state law mandates that county budgets be in place — does not provide adequate opportunity for the three commissioners to carry out a thorough examination like the one needed, amid their important day-to-day county-related responsibilities.

Erb was correct in urging Webster to compile her budget-reduction ideas and bring them to a future commissioners meeting for discussion.

Likewise, during these early days of the new year, county row office leaders should initiate new, comprehensive reviews of their respective operations and be prepared to hold a frank financial discussion with the commissioners well before the 2021 budget workshops begin.

No row office’s back is against the financial wall, even though the commendable goal of each office is to provide the best public service possible. When the situation demands, there must be a willingness to implement belt-tightening, regardless of how difficult that might be.

Even if it would be impossible to exact the savings that the 3.7 percent tax increase represents, going forward, any meaningful overall spending reduction would merit property owners’ appreciation.

As with Erb, the two new commissioners can make good on their campaign promises to act on behalf of county residents’ best interests. But that pledge doesn’t mandate dangerous haste.

All three commissioners should use this year to poise the county for better financial times next year and beyond, while acknowledging that commissioner boards of recent years didn’t conduct business irresponsibly.

The countywide property reassessment, while controversial, was in fact long overdue. Meanwhile, big and costly financial issues — the courthouse renovation being one — were addressed in a responsible, cost-conscious way.

Delaying the courthouse project would have proved much more costly later.

If there is any criticism worthy of being meted out, it should be aimed at commissioners decades ago who, because of not wanting to increase the real estate levy even a pittance, didn’t deal with courthouse deterioration while it was of a much smaller, less costly scope.

The nearly 40 percent hike in the real estate tax since reassessment is troubling, but without well thought out proposals, subsequent discussion and tough decisions, that number only will continue to increase — along with taxpayers’ justifiable unhappiness.