Somerset County commissioners could unveil new budget Jan. 30

Jan. 16—SOMERSET, Pa. — Somerset County's new commissioners took their first formal steps toward modifying the county's 2024 budget Tuesday, approving a schedule enabling them to put a new plan on display Jan. 30.

Any possible changes that might be proposed for the current $60.7 million plan are not yet settled — with the goal to spend the next two weeks "digging" for ways to cut costs alongside Financial Director Rebecca Canavan, Somerset County President Commissioner Brian Fochtman said.

Noting that the board inherited the budget from the previous commissioners' board, "we have a lot of questions and we're still working to get answers," added Fochtman, saying it's too soon to predict how expenses might change.

"Everything boils down to the budget. This is taxpayers' money we're spending," he said following Tuesday's meeting. "So we want to be as fiscally responsible as we can."

The board's vote Tuesday outlined the process the board plans to follow, enabling workshops and special meetings to be scheduled as needed for budget planning purposes a Jan. 30 budget presentation — if needed — and for that plan to be on the agenda for final adoption Feb. 13.

By statute, incoming commissioners' boards have until Feb. 15 to amend the current-year budget, meaning Somerset's schedule will give the board flexibility to put the plan on public display and approve it before the deadline.

Commissioners Fochtman, Irv Kimmel Jr. and Pamela Tokar-Ickes voted 3-0 on the motion, a week after questions were raised about the voting procedure for reopening a budget.

While the vote doesn't guarantee any budget changes will be made, the move did delay a move that would raise wages for more than 100 non-union employees in 2024.

For many of those full-time workers, 3.5% raises are scheduled to be implemented through the current budget. But the board already tabled the matter once to consider a proposal that would have instead raised salaries $1,500 — to more fairly compensate entry level workers who would benefit far less from small percentage raises.

But Kimmel noted that with the board crunching numbers and still considering what their countywide 2024 budget will look like, it's too soon to act on those adjustments.

"We've got to table this," he said.

The county is also planning to implement procedural changes on the salary board, based on the recommendation of its new solicitors, that would give department heads a board vote when wages within their office are up for a vote.

Commissioner salaries

Fochtman and Kimmel's campaign pledge on their salaries will end up being a three-year freeze.

The pair approved formal resolutions Tuesday that shows they will keep their salaries at the new 2024 total, which is up from $78,847 last year.

That means Focthman, Kimmel and Tokar-Ickes will all earn $81,212 for 2024 — reflecting the 3% increase previously approved by the former board three years earlier.

Tokar-Ickes, who did not pledge to freeze her current salary, abstained from the vote, and would not be prevented from seeing her salary increase by up to 3% in January 2025, 2026 and 2027.

Tokar-Ickes has said she'd support a salary board vote in 2026 to freeze future wages for elected officials, the commissioners included.

As approved Tuesday, only one row officer, Tony DeLuca, signed a resolution freezing his pay through 2027.

Salaries became a hot topic during the 2023 election season, with board critics pointing out that Somerset's board collected salaries that outpaces most of their county neighbors, including larger ones such as Cambria County.

Fochtman said he and Kimmel chose to freeze their salaries at the 2024 rate because it was already implemented and on the books.

"2024 is the year we took over. It would have been more difficult to revert back to 2023 (wages)," he said.

Somerset County first responder Dan "Dink" Dively, a regular meeting attendee, credited Focthman and Kimmel for following through with their campaign promise "for the betterment of the county."

"I applaud you guys," he said.

New solicitors Ben Carroll, of Somerset, and Carolyn Shaw, of New Kensington, Westmoreland County, will wait one more meeting before their contract is on the table for board approval.

The subject was tabled at Carroll's suggestion after he noted the contract was not listed properly in accordance to recent Sunshine Law changes.

Carroll noted that the agenda item, under the term "commissioners," made no mention that it involved a legal contract.

"It would be hypocritical of us to (draw attention) to something not being listed specifically enough (and not their own contract," Carroll said.

As tabled, the contract will now be on the agenda for consideration Jan. 30, he said.