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Further study necessary on county pension

Some Mirror subscribers read articles containing references to the pension plan covering Blair County government workers without giving much thought to the significance of what they have read.

However, a Jan. 21 article headlined “Blair seeking pension plan study” contained fodder for considerable reflection beyond what otherwise might have been a “quick read.”

Anyone who pondered the numbers in the article gained some valuable insight into the county commissioners’ challenge each year regarding making ends meet and avoiding a property-tax hike.

As most county property owners are well aware, the previous three-member board of commissioners — two members have left office due to expiration of their terms — felt compelled to increase this year’s real estate levy by 3.7 percent to balance 2020 incoming and outgoing revenue.

Without that action, county government could have been in a financial bind 10 or 11 months from now, and the foundation might have been “poured” for a bigger tax increase for 2021, even if cuts were implemented for next year to shave the size of that increase.

As many county residents already know, the current commissioners intend to examine spending during the coming months to try to bring down the cost of county operations, going forward.

But their challenge will be formidable, because of county government’s vast obligations and broad service responsibilities.

One of those major financial obligations is the pension plan covering county employees past, present and presumably future. The former board of commissioners budgeted a $4.5 million general fund contribution to the pension fund for this year.

That is below the $6 million-plus recommended financial injection but $300,000 more than the county allocated for 2019.

In recent years, county leaders implemented pension plan improvements that, as of July, had pushed back projected insolvency to 2047 from 2026.

However, it is easy to understand how much the $4.5 million of general fund revenue that will be dumped into the pension fund this year will affect the overall county government fiscal ledger and make more difficult the important task of keeping annual spending in line with incoming tax revenue.

That is why the proposed study involving the county’s pension plan, the topic of the Jan. 21 article, is so important.

It will improve the insight of county leaders regarding all of the relevant factors tied to the pension fund, including whether the county, despite the recommended $6 million-plus allocation, is really contributing too much or maybe too little to the fund.

It is preferable to have such information in hand sooner rather than later, to allow county leaders ample time to weigh study data prior to the start of 2021 budget preparation.

The county retirement board is agreeable to authorizing the study officially on Feb. 6, if a price for it can be obtained by that date. County Controller A. C. Stickel has estimated the study’s cost at approximately $15,000.

A Jan. 16 Mirror editorial expressed the viewpoint that the county needs a much more in-depth evaluation of its operations than what the annual late-in-the-year budget workshops provide.

The proposed pension plan study is an important component of that overall necessity.

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