HOLLIDAYSBURG - Blair County leaders secured permission Friday to impose a general fund real estate tax levy exceeding 25 mills for 2013 to help cover a 4.7 percent increase in expenses.
Senior Judge Charles Brown of Centre County asked a few questions during the court hearing where county officials described the budget's revenue, expenditures and plans to increase property taxes by 3.5 mills.
If the court decided not to approve the request, the county would be $1.67 million short, county solicitor Nathan Karn said.
"It would indeed be a very difficult task to decide where we would cut services," Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti told Brown.
With Brown's permission to exceed the 25-mill cap set by the state, commissioners are in a position to vote Dec. 18 on the budget proposal with a real estate tax levy of 27.495 mills to support the general fund. Because the county levies additional millage to cover debt and to support libraries, parks and recreation, the tax rate for 2013 will be 32.059 mills.
The proposed 3.5-mill increase, according to Chief Tax Assessor Michael Baldner, will mean an increase of $40 to $58 in taxes for someone with a property currently valued at $100,000.
Finance Director Robert Kuntz told Brown that expenditures for 2013 are increasing by 4.7 percent.
"The biggest driver [of the increase] is the cost of hospitalization," Kuntz said.
While the county's hospitalization rates are in place through March, he estimated a 12 percent increase - about $700,000 - as of April 1 when the county's plan is up for renewal.
Kuntz also budgeted $175,000 in additional health insurance costs because of a pending decision to change part-time sheriff deputies to full time, as requested by Sheriff Mitchell Cooper on the basis that it would reduce turnover and training costs.
The proposed budget also shows $480,000 more to cover schooling for delinquent juveniles, $243,000 to cover wage increases and $116,000 more for foster care.
The proposed budget also shows, for the first time in several years, an allocation of $50,000 for the Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority, an amount the authority requested to help leverage federal aviation dollars.
Karn, who prepared the county's petition seeking the increase, also advised the judge of the commissioners' decision to close the solid waste and recycling department in October for lack of supporting revenue and the steps taken toward the possible sale of Valley View Home.
In 2008, when Senior Judge John K. Reilly of Clearfield County heard the county's last petition to exceed 25 mills of real estate taxes, he looked for reasons behind the increase and blamed commissioners for failing to reassess. While Reilly signed the county's petition, he told them they "ought to be embarrassed" for not having reassessed since 1958.
Brown, near the beginning of the hearing, said his role in reviewing the request does not put him in a position to decide how commissioners should cut the budget or programs.
"It's not my case or my job to run the County of Blair," he said.
Brown did ask Karn about public response to the proposed budget and tax rate. Since Nov. 13 when the budget was introduced and put on public display, commissioners have met twice and no one offered objections, the solicitor said.
After securing Brown's signature on the petition, county officials offered no predictions as to future budgets or tax rates, which could be affected by changes in federal health insurance rules, changes in state-mandated services and the sale of Valley View Home.
The state sets 30 mills as the maximum millage allowed for the county's general fund.
"Clearly we're getting close to the edge," Tomassetti said. "There's not a lot of room there to play with."