Baker returns as Blairsville tax collector through council appointment
Blairsville Council has made a decision to move forward with borough tax collection services by turning back to the woman who previously handled the task for 11 years.
With Jim Mollo absent, remaining council members voted unanimously to appoint former tax collector Joan Baker to a new two-year term in the post at a special Feb. 6 meeting.
Baker succeeds Carol Tarasovich, who was appointed as tax collector in February 2013, after Baker stepped down on Jan. 17 of last year. Tarasovich won election to a full four-year term as tax collector in November, but she resigned last month, citing a “hostile” environment, after several months when taxpayers aired complaints about delays in processing their payments and about having difficulty in contacting her.
The borough, Blairsville-Saltsburg School District and Indiana County all reported that collections on borough tax accounts had fallen behind compared to the previous year.
Following the Feb. 6 meeting, borough manager Tim Evans indicated that, after the latest $34,000 distribution of tax dollars from Tarasovich's collections, the borough's 2013 tax receipts remained about $22,000 shy of what it collected in 2012.
According to Evans, Tarasovich had yet to settle her accounts with all three taxing bodies, which he said must occur before a 2013 audit of her office can be completed.
In a preliminary review from April through November of last year, the auditing firm of Wessel and Co. found fault with Tarasovich's procedures in eight areas — all of which Tarasovich has disputed in interviews with The Dispatch. The auditing firm's findings included that Tarasovich had failed to deposit some checks for tax payments in a timely manner.
Council President John Bertolino said notices were set to be mailed on Feb. 15 to borough property owners whose 2013 taxes were on record as being unpaid and, therefore, could be subject to a lien on the property.
He advised that anyone who believes they received a notice in error should contact the borough office.
Given the recent complaints, Evans told those applying to succeed Tarasovich that “hours, communication and availability are of the utmost importance” in the services they intended to provide to borough taxpayers.
While Tarasovich had established her tax office at a separate location, Bertolino said borough officials wanted to encourage the appointee succeeding her to return to a room at the borough building that Baker had used as an office. Before deciding on the appointment, council voted to reverse a past decision to begin charging monthly rent of $200 for the space this year.
Following her appointment, Baker said she intends to set up her office in the borough building once more, by the time spring tax bills are issued, and will have the same scheduled hours she had in the past: 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
She noted she also has a home office that she will use to keep up with the work required of the tax collector. In her letter to council seeking the appointment, she added, “I also take time to visit the homes of taxpayers who are unable to come to the office to pay their tax bills.”
“I loved it,” Baker said of her previous work as tax collector. “I love the people in this town.”
Baker, 80, said she decided to step down last year to be with her husband, former councilman Andy Baker, when he traveled to Greensburg for cancer treatments. She said her husband is now cancer-free and she intends to run for election in 2015, with the hope of extending her second stint as tax collector for two more years.
Evans noted four-year terms for the borough tax collector position would resume with the 2017 election.
Baker was among five applicants for the appointment who attended the Feb. 6 meeting to introduce themselves and to answer any questions posed by council. The hopefuls had been asked to fill out a detailed application form in advance.
Initially, councilman Jeff Marshall moved to appoint Jeff Helm as the new tax collector, but the motion received support only from Ab Dettorre, with Bertolino, Paul Fodor and Denise Dunmire opposed.
Helm, who previously served on the Blairsville-Saltsburg School Board and on the Blairsville Community Development Authority board, cited 21 years of experience as a certified public accountant working with both public and corporate accounts. Responding to a question from Dettorre, Helm noted he wasn't planning to retire from his career as a CPA but had intended to take care of tax collector duties during evenings and weekends.
Fodor made the successful motion to appoint Baker as tax collector. He said he considered all five applicants well qualified for the post and indicated deciding on the appointment was one of the toughest calls he's made in his initial weeks as a councilman.
Fodor said he nominated Baker because he thought, with her experience in the position, she “could get us back on track.
“She knows the ins and outs of everything. She knows how the system works.”
He expressed hope there would be the same level of interest in the post during the 2015 municipal elections.
“We did have a lot of good candidates,” Bertolino agreed. “I think any one of them could have done a good job.”
He said Baker is “a good fit at this time. She knows the job. She did it for a long time.”
Also applying for the tax collector appointment were: Patty Lance, who retired four years ago from a 41-year career in the banking field; Robert Nolan, a retired postmaster with 43 years of service who ran second to Tarasovich in November's polling for the collector post; Dan Ringler, who cited skills in accounting, customer service and communication; and Jonathan Santoro, a local volunteer firefighter and accounting graduate.
Evans noted the tax collector earned about $32,000 in 2012 — split among the taxing bodies as follows: borough, $13,500; school district, $10,000; and county, $8,500.
Civil service posts vacant
Bertolino suggested those who failed to win the tax collector appointment could consider applying for other appointed, but unpaid posts that are up for grabs on various borough boards.
Two of the three appointed seats on the borough civil service commission currently are vacant. With the Feb. 2 death of Don Peace, who chaired the commission, Irv Lindsey is the sole active member of that panel. At least one of the two remaining seats must be filled before the commission can meet or take action.
Borough officials informally discussed the possibility of appointing a council member to fill one of the vacancies.
Evans noted the civil service commission is required to meet at least once a year. The commission also has input on hirings of full-time borough police officers and on some disciplinary matters regarding officers.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.