Dec
19

No Tax Increase Needed to Balance County Budget

County commissioners Rich Fink, David Battaglia and Bob Bower approved a balanced 2015 spending plan yesterday morning for Armstrong County.

By Jonathan Weaver

For the second year in a row, county residents will not see their taxes go up at the hands of the county commissioners.

Thursday morning, commissioners unanimously adopted the $20.7 million General Fund budget for 2015.

“We really looked to see that every penny was accounted for,” Commissioner Chair David Battaglia said.

Financial Advisor Carly Cowan said projected costs actually decreased during the past month.

“There was only a slight change from the preliminary budget – it actually decreased about $105,000,” Cowan said. “We were able to make some adjustments in our healthcare that benefit the county as a whole – a positive impact on the General Fund, in particular, and reduce the amount of operating reserve needed to balance the budget for this year.

“There weren’t any other substantial changes. The individual departments should be about the same – the groundwork is pretty-much laid with the preliminary budget.”

Cowan explained that some employees at the Armstrong County Health Center in Kittanning joined the county’s health plan – which lowered the county allocation.

With the budget passage Thursday, Cowan will now release final budget allocations to each of the county department leaders.

“My job is still not done,” Cowan said.

For example, 911 Coordinator Ron Baustert said the biggest factor that accounted for more money needed in his department is a new 10 year/$2.99 million radio maintenance agreement with Motorola Solutions, Inc..

“We’re still running the radio system under-warranty right now. The warranty expires June 30, so our first payment comes due in July,” Baustert said. “Every county has to purchase and maintain their own radio towers/equipment tied to the switch in Greensburg.”

Baustert said the first payment of $148,000 will be for radio maintenance. It would have been about $300,000 per year, but Armstrong County is only paying for less than half

“(With) all of the technology that has been added in the last eight to 10 years at 9-1-1, keeping it up-to-speed becomes a significant cost,” Baustert said.

He said because of the need for additional funding, he did not ask for money in other areas – such as tower inspections.

As explained by Cowan in November, county commissioners will shift half a mill from debt service to general purpose, creating some money to cover the increase in the General Fund budget.

The final financial figures showed more revenue toward many county departments – such as County Controller Myra Miller’s office, Tax Claim Bureau Director Jeanne Englert’s office and in the County Planning and Development office – but the nearly-50 individual department budgets collected vary – with some department heads submitting budget decreases and some budget increases.

Last month, Commissioner Richard Fink attributed an increase in expenses directly to increases in healthcare and pension costs.

A three-percent salary increase to employees was also added into the funding plan. Those salaries will be reviewed at the first Salary Board meeting – of which all three county commissioners are a part of – at the beginning of January 2015.

Battaglia said in November that the lack of a tax increase encourages people to move to the County.

The County Capital Improvement Fund increased nearly $100,000 in anticipation of installing an Information Technology “switch,” Cowan said last month.
The last county tax increase – two mills – was in 2012

Commissioners also allocated $16,120 out of the county’s Marcellus Shale Legacy Fund for a retaining wall along North McKean Way as part of the Downtown Kittanning Revitalization Project.

Cowan, also the county Marcellus Shale Coordinator, said about $60,000 in legacy fund dollars were received in 2014 and about the same amount is anticipated for 2015.

 

Dec
19

E-Mail Address Protection Considered for Lenape Tech Students

By Jonathan Weaver

Lenape Tech Joint Operating Committee members will consider multiple policy revisions after the holidays, but one will limit student directory information to the outside world.

Solicitor Lee Price recommended committee members not allow student e-mail addresses to be given out upon request – as allowed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) – without prior consent.

“Unless a student or parent affirmatively says ‘I want to have to give you prior consent,’ school districts can release a list of items, and one of those items is a student’s e-mail addresss,” Price said. “In this day with kids getting contacted by strangers, I feel that that’s not a good idea.

“We would only release an e-mail address if a parent said ‘Yes, it’s OK.’”

Price said the policy also applies to colleges or trade schools.

A second reading of the policy change will be read at January’s meeting. Parent or visitor remarks regarding the change will be accepted before members vote.

Board members unanimously agreed with the policy change, as did Administrative Director Dawn Kocher-Taylor.

“The Internet is a pretty-unprotected domain in a lot of respects, and I think to make student e-mails or any kind of electronic data which would lend someone the ability to communicate with a (student) is a dangerous precedent to set,” Kocher-Taylor said. “If we can protect that information, we’re protecting (students) – that’s part of our job as educators.”

She said there were already few requests for directory information – usually limited to the U.S. Armed Forces – but said the possibility still does exist.

Each Lenape Tech student is provided an e-mail address at the beginning of each school year.

Joint Operating Committee members unanimously voted 7-0 to retain Armstrong School District representative Joseph Close as President for 2015. He was the only representative nominated. Elected vice chairperson Dr. John Marty, representing the Freeport Area School District, was not in-attendance Thursday.

Close – the parent of a current Lenape Tech student (11th grade full-time student Emily, studying cosmetology) and graduate (Dominic, who studied and continues to pursue welding) was first elected as chairperson in December 2011 after Meredith Christy of the Freeport Area School District conducted meetings.

“They do a lot for students (at Lenape Tech), and it’s rewarding being involved in the management,” Close said. “It gives students a pretty-big advantage going into the workforce.”

Ballots will also be mailed to all school board representatives to elect Close as the president of the 36-member board.

The last day for students before winter break is Tuesday.