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Indiana County commissioners approved 5-mill tax hike for 2013

| Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, 9:04 p.m.

Indiana County residents will be ringing in the new year with a heftier property tax bill after the county's commissioners unanimously ratified a budget plan Christmas Eve that calls for a five-mill tax hike.

The tax hike comes despite the county trimming more than $210,000 in expenses from the tentative budget approved Dec. 3.

The final general fund budget totals a balanced $31,325,673 in revenues and expenses, up about 3 percent from the 2012 budget.

A large portion of the $210,000 cut in general budget expenses came from renegotiated health care coverage for county employees.

A total of 268 courthouse employees, corrections officers, sheriff's deputies and Indian Haven employees are affected by the renegotiated union contracts, all of which were approved Monday.

Under the new contracts, employees are to receive a 2-percent pay increase in the first year, a 2.5-percent raise in each of the next two years and a 3-percent increase in the fourth year of the contract.

As part of the renegotiated contracts, Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield agreed to a 2-percent decrease in the cost of health care in the first year followed by a cost freeze the following year and a rate-increase cap of 7 percent the next two years.

Another renegotiated health care contract also contributed to the savings. Indiana County Jail Warden Sam Buzzinotti said the county will be saving rougly $15,000 per year after successfully negotiating with PrimeCare Medical, Inc. to lower its annual rate increase from 4 percent to 1.5 percent. Prime Care Medical handles reimbursements for inpatient medical care required by inmates at the jail.

The county's property tax rate will increase from 32.4 to 37.4 mills, generating around $2.9 million in additional revenue at an extra expense of roughly $61 to the average household. The county's $5 per capita tax will remain the same, as will the 7.4-mill allotment for debt services.

The commissioners were required by state law to petition Indiana County Court of Common Pleas President Judge William Martin to raise the tax rate assigned to the general fund above 25 mills. That hearing was conducted Dec. 18.

The tax increase, Commissioners Chairman Rodney Ruddock said, will allow the county to undertake a county-wide reassessment, which is to be completed and implemented by Jan. 2016, without requiring additional tax hikes in the interim years.

The commissioners approved a contract with the Law Offices of Ira Weiss in Pittsburgh to provide consultants and develop a request for proposals for the tax reassessment project at a rate of $125 per hour.

The firm conducted a 2010 study that determined the county's tax assessment structure was flawed, causing owners of low-value properties to pay an unfair share.

The reassessment will entail a physical inspection and reassessment of each of the county's 46,495 taxable properties. The reassessment is expected to cost $3.5 million and take 30 months to complete. The last county-wide tax reassessment occurred in 1968.

The capital fund will add $37,420 in revenue to an opening balance of $148,580 under the 2013 budget approved at the meeting.

The county's approved liquid fuels budget for 2013 is balanced at $390,125 each in revenues and expenses.

The commissioners on Monday also approved a contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) for 2012 Community Development Block Grant entitlement funds totaling $579,005. Included are the county's own entitlement allocation and others it administers for Burrell and Center townships and Indiana Borough.

The county board voted to execute an Appalachian Regional Development Agreement to serve as project sponsor for road improvements needed to access the proposed 27-acre 119 Business Park in Center Township. The county is acting on behalf of the Indiana County Development Corporation, which is planning to develop the site as a Keystone Opportunity Zone.

The park is to be accessed off Luciusboro Road, which was updated with a traffic signal as part of PennDOT's Route 119 widening project. The Appalachian Regional Commission is expected to provide up to $300,000, or 80 percent of the eligible construction cost of the access road.

Indiana County accepted the conditional award of Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement funds in the amount of $155,000 for construction of the Clinton Street Gardens Homeless Veterans Housing Project. The facility will include five single-bedroom units and an additional two-bedroom unit, all of which will be handicapped-accessible.

Other funding for the project includes $482,639 from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's Supportive Housing Program, $251,000 from Indiana County's 2011 community development block grant allocation and a local commitment of $18,306 from the Northern Cambria County Development Corporation. An application is pending for $500,000 in state HOME program funds, awaiting final review by the DCED.

The commissioners approved a grant of $26,300 from the DCED for preparation of the Indiana Community University District Program. The project will coordinate planning efforts by the county, Indiana Borough, White Township and Indiana University of Pennsylvania in and around the IUP campus.

According to a memo from the county office of planning and development, the project will focus on overlapping land-use and regulatory policies in areas such as student housing, parking, transportation and neighborhood preservation. The process is expected to involve “multiple stakeholders in identifying issues and opportunities.”

As part of a lengthy agenda, the commissioners also unanimously:

• Approved two vehicle purchases from Tri-Star Motors: one for the department of probation and one for the sheriff's office.

• Approved a 5-year bridge inspection plan, with Gibson-Thomas Engineering Co. to inspect 64 bridges in Indiana County, 31 of which are owned by the county.

• Approved a contract with Westmoreland County Community College decreasing by $10,000 the county's contribution to an annual scholarship given to an Indiana County student attending the school's Indiana County branch campus.

• Reappointed Janis Long as chairman of the Farmland Preservation Board and certified that the county had contributed no funding to the Farmland Preservation Program.

The courthouse will be closed Tuesday for the New Year's Day holiday. The commissioners next will meet at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 9.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or

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