Commissioners

Huntingdon County Commissioners, from the left, Mark Sather, Jeff Thomas and Scott Walls, gave an overview of the state of the county at the annual Coffee Connection event held at the Huntingdon Country Club Wednesday morning.

Members of the Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce had an opportunity to hear about the state of the county from the Huntingdon County Commissioners during a Coffee Connection, sponsored by the Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce, held at the Huntingdon Country Club Wednesday morning.

Commissioner Scott Walls addressed the sources of county funding and showed where funding comes from in the county, explaining a reason for the 3.75-mill tax increase in 2020.

“Around 44% of our funding comes from local taxes, including per capita and real estate taxes,” said Walls. “Around $11,914,000 came from the state and other sources, and that funding went from almost $12 million to around $9 million in 2020, leaving county residents to make up the difference.”

Walls also went into detail about land that doesn’t fall under the tax rolls in the county, as well as land that’s taxed at a discounted rate under Clean and Green.

“Huntingdon County covers 889 square miles and we have a population of 45,913, as of the 2010 U.S. Census,” said Walls. “The majority of land in Huntingdon County is tax exempt or taxed at a discounted rate.

“There are 71,000 acres covered by Rothrock and Tuscarora state forests, State Game Lands cover 40,00 acres, and federal lands, covered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, covers 30,000 acres,” said Walls. “For the corps land, we do benefit from proceeds from some leases, and the county does benefit from tourism, but there was a net loss revenue and it took a long time for the county to recoup that loss.”

Other land not covered under the tax rolls include 7,000 acres owned by Penn State University for Stone Valley Forest, where the county receives no compensation. There’s also 1,000 acres covered by Whipple Dam and Greenwood Furnace state parks, 175 churches and religious institutions that cover 1,160 acres exempt from taxes and and a large majority of the county, 280,000 acres, is exempt from farm land, farm reserve and forest management lands, which is taxed at 40% of the tax rate.

Walls noted only 24% of land is taxed at the full rate in the county.

With all of that said, Walls said he, as well as commissioners Mark Sather and Jeff Thomas, have lobbied for “meaningful tax reform” through the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

“For example, if we had a local sales tax of 1%, we’d bring in around $3,375,000 to the general fund,” said Walls. “Our general fund is around $21-22 million, with $11-12 million coming from local property taxes. If we would get other options for taxes, we’d greatly reduce the tax burden in the state. I know our local state legislators support this, but it’s hard to get people in urban areas to jump on board to this.”

Commissioner Mark Sather gave a brief overview of how the money is spent and how they’re finding ways to create savings within county departments.

“We do our budget on a calendar year, so every January, we start with a new budget,” he said. “But, (for the next year’s budget), we start it at the end of October. We send out inquiries to our department heads for any anticipated needs. We review those in November and discuss the difference between wants and needs, and we focus on the needs. We focus on what we can do and develop a strategy and plan of action.”

Sather said they also look at all of the county appropriated funds to agencies like Huntingdon County Business & Industry, Juniata Valley Behavior and Developmental Services, Shirley Home for the Aged, Penn State Cooperative Extension, the Huntingdon County Conservation District, Huntingdon-Bedford-Fulton Area Agency on Aging, Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission and Central Counties Youth Center.

One example of how they’re trying to find ways to save funds is through the county’s Children and Youth Services Department.

“That accounts for 30% of our budget, but we got (a reduction in spending) down in 2018 by 4.8%, which was significant,” said Sather. “That was because of the hard work done in CYS by the supervisors and director. They deserve recognition and appreciation, because they do that while protecting the health and welfare of our children.”

One of the county’s goals is to bring foster care and supervised visitation services back into the county, which would also mean a significant savings.

“That would be around a 58-62% savings, or $50 per day per child,” said Sather. “It would be around a 75% savings with supervised visitation.”

Sather also discussed another chunk of county spending, at 13.61% of the county’s budget — the county jail.

“Part of that cost is $1.15 million for outsourcing inmate populations,” he said. “At the time we initially took office in 2016, the previous board hired a consultant, and the results of their study (for the jail) were undetermined. The population of jail went from 63 in 2016 to 93 (at its highest) in 2019. We’re currently in the 80s with our jail population. Our jail holds 48, so the remainder of inmates are being outsourced.”

Sather said they are tasking the company they hired to transfer from a cash to modified accrual accounting to take a look at the expenses at the Huntingdon County Jail, but he also mentioned the implementation of pre-trial services in the county.

“There are currently 162 offenders being served, with 291 assessment completed,” said Sather. “These are for non-violent offenders who can be monitored while they’re the court system without serving jail time, which helps to reduce the jail population.”

Commissioner Jeff Thomas focused on the priorities of the county in 2020, one of which includes broadband internet.

“Rural broadband is very important in our county, as well as the six-county region (of the SAP&DC),” he said. “There’s no real map of what parts of the region are actually served, underserved or unserved with broadband internet. The (Federal Communications Commission) have maps, but they’re inaccurate. If Huntingdon and Mount Union are covered, they say the whole county is covered, and that’s not true.”

As part of the six-county comprehensive plan, Start Up Alleghenies, approved in 2019, a task force was formed to try to provide broadband internet to the region.

“We reached out to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and we got $50,000, and all of the counties provided their share of $50,000 to hire a consultant to do a survey, which will be completed by mid-July,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the results to see how we can implement broadband.”

Another priority would be replacing election equipment, as part of the new laws that were passed in the state at the end of last year.

“Our current equipment had all of the requirements, and we applied to the state to get an extension before we could switch over,” said Thomas. “They said we could have it, but we would also lose funding in applying for that extension. With that in mind, we went ahead and purchased new voting equipment. I don’t know why they would mandate new election equipment during a presidential election year in Pennsylvania, but it happened.

“The total federal funding for this is around $14.5 million, and we get $43,000 of that, but the state is paying $90 million out, and that will pay for 60% of the cost,” added Thomas. “The total cost to purchase the equipment was $583,757. For voters, they won’t see that much of a change at all at the polls.”

Thomas also discussed how some other laws regarding elections will impact the county.

“With mail-in balloting, anyone can get a mail-in ballot, which is good, but they can bring those ballots in at 8 p.m. Election Day to the courthouse,” said Sather. “This will slow down the process of getting results to you. We will have to pull the election books for every ballot we receive to make sure they didn’t vote in their precinct (in addition to getting a mail-in ballot). It’s going to take awhile to verify. There may be some delays, but we’ll really see those delays with municipal elections.”

Lynn Conaway, past chair of the Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce, asked a question provided to him by the government affairs committee regarding the commissioner’s proposal for access to Raystown Lake on the eastern side as well as Terrace Mountain Lodge.

“The commissioners’ proposal doesn’t have anything to do with the proposed Terrace Mountain Lodge,” said Walls. “Our plan is to just increase accessibility to the eastern side of the lake by utilizing areas already previously disturbed the corps. We don’t want anything on the actual peninsula, but we want very minimal impact for those to enjoy the lake on the eastern side.”

Kylie can be reached at khawn@huntingdondailynews.com.

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