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Salary dispute dies quickly

| Friday, March 28, 2008

An attempt by Westmoreland County Commissioner Kim Ward to drastically reduce the pay of the three members of the Board of Assessment Appeals went nowhere Thursday morning.

Ward made a motion to reduce the salaries of the three-member board to $15,000 a year beginning Sept. 1. The board members now make more than $51,000 a year, along with benefits and unlimited vacation time.

Ward's motion died when none of the other three members of the county's Salary Board, Democratic commissioners Tom Balya and Thomas Ceraso and Controller Carmen Pedicone, would second it.

Last year, appeals board members heard about 1,200 cases. They are required to attend six meetings a year to hear cases in which property owners seek exemptions from paying taxes.

Ward, a Republican commissioner who began serving in January, believes the three board members are overpaid.

"These are full-time wages for a part-time job," she said after yesterday's meeting.

Balya said comparing total assessment budgets of Westmoreland County to other similarly sized counties shows the county's costs are among the lowest.

"I think this is nothing but a political issue," Balya said after the meeting. "We operate the least expensive (assessment) office per capita and per parcel among third-class counties. We're doing it more efficiently than any other third-class county."

Balya provided information comparing Westmoreland's entire tax assessment budget to those of 10 other third-class counties, as well as three larger second-class counties.

At $5.28 per parcel, Westmoreland County's assessment costs were the lowest of all the counties, Balya said. The $2.67-per-resident cost was higher than only Delaware County, a second-class A county that operates under a home-rule charter, a different form of government than Westmoreland's.

Delaware's costs were $2.10 per resident.

The highest costs came in third-class Dauphin County, which pays $11.21 per resident and $26.17 per parcel, according to Balya's figures.

Ward isn't swayed by the numbers.

"I don't think there should be a limit on how efficient we can be," she said.

She compared appeals board salaries among third-class counties.

Board members in Westmoreland were paid $151,958 in 2007. The next highest was Luzerne County at $92,060. The lowest was Northampton County at $3,800. Other counties typically fell in the $30,000 to $40,000 range for total compensation for all board members.

"It's not about politics. The campaign is over," Ward said. "This is about policy, doing the right thing with the taxpayers' money."

Balya said comparing the salaries of appeals board members to other counties doesn't provide the full picture, since some counties' boards simply hear appeals and don't do independent research.

"The issue's bigger to me than these three individuals," Balya said. "... These folks go out in the field. When there's an appeal, they go out and verify."

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