Posted budget: Taxes steady in Washington County

November 20, 2012

Washington County property owners will see no tax increase under the county’s 2013 posted budget, and a deficit of $1.048 million has turned into a $454,000 surplus.

The $71.5 million general fund budget, an increase of 3.9 percent from last year, is based on a property tax levy proposed to remain at 24.9 mills.

“We’re not done whittling away at the budget,” said Commission Chairman Larry Maggi, returning from a meeting of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania in Hershey. “It’s still a work in progress.”

One area that won’t be shrinking is the cost of employees’ Highmark health insurance, up 8 percent for those under age 65. The line item increased by $856,332 from last year, and health care for current employees and retirees accounts for $11,559,573 of the general fund budget, about 5 mills’ worth of revenue. Some employees’ health care costs are reimbursed through federal and state programs.

Elected officials’ contributions to health care will be increasing to 7 percent from 2012’s 5 percent, said Roger Metcalfe, county finance director, and it’s likely that salaried employees will be contributing an identical amount.

The cost of running the 911 emergency dispatch center through the county’s Public Safety Department has also gone up $150,000. The center is receiving less revenue from a telephone landline surcharge because there are fewer landlines.

“It’s the same for all the counties,” said Commissioner Harlan Shober, who also had just returned from the CCAP meeting. Shober called centralized emergency dispatch “an important part of what we do.”

The county’s general fund portion of its employees’ retirement allocation is expected to be $571,303, and the total taxpayer contribution is expected to be about $4 million. “We are fully funding our pension,” Shober said. “Some of the counties are not fully putting that money in.”

County employees, by state law, have a defined-benefit retirement plan. Commission Vice Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said the state hasn’t lived up to its part of the bargain for its employees but said funding retirees’ plans “is a good practice (Washington County) has always had.”

It came to light last week that the general fund had not received $235,000 from the courts as expected for adult probation services, and a transfer had not taken place in time to be added to the 2013 posted budget.

Because Washington County has its local share of casino gambling revenue and Act 13 money from the Marcellus Shale gas well impact fee, “sometimes people are given the impression that the county’s flush with money,” Maggi said. The local share does not go into the general fund, and the Act 13 money, totaling $4.4 million, has yet to be allocated.

“The money shouldn’t go for personnel and pay raises, but one-time projects,” Maggi said. “We can’t go out and spend like a drunken sailor.”

The county has a surplus of about $12 million, but Shober cautioned, “In the long term, you can’t keep using your fund balance.”

The commissioners are scheduled to adopt the budget at their Dec. 20 meeting.

The 95-page budget is available for public inspection from 9 a.m. to 4:30 today and during the same hours beginning Monday. Washington County offices are closed Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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