No tax increase in Washington County 2014 preliminary budget
Washington County's Courthouse Square office building
Washington County’s preliminary budget for 2014 contains no tax increase, nor does it include new borrowing to pay for the $6.9 million cost of the contract with Tyler Technologies Inc. to reassess property.
The county’s $78.8 million spending plan does, however, have a transfer of approximately $2.5 million into the general fund to pay Tyler for next year’s reassessment-related work.
Commission Chairman Larry Maggi Wednesday called this “freeing up money we can use to pay for the reassessment” but added, “I don’t feel good about it at all.
“We could be putting money back into Washington County, whether it’s reducing taxes or repairing deficient bridges. It does not sit well with me that we’re wasting $7 million. That’s still real money.”
Maggi noted that under the preliminary budget, county taxes remain at 24.9 mills.
Tyler’s house-to-house data collection was scheduled to begin Tuesday in the 7th Ward of Washington.
At mid-year, Washington County received nearly $4.5 million from the Marcellus Shale impact fee, known as Act 13. Royalties from natural gas and oil extracted from county-owned land in 2012 totaled $1,550,733.
Act 13 does not include property reassessment in its list of permitted uses. So the county is using property tax revenue to pay Tyler while Act 13 money is paying for permitted uses, including judicial services, parks and public safety.
In 2008, the Washington and McGuffey school districts filed a complaint against the county commissioners for not conducting a reassessment in nearly 30 years. Since 2009, the county has been putting money aside for this project, but until the Marcellus Shale impact fee was signed into law in 2012, there was talk of the county having to borrow the money for reassessment through a bond issue. Last year, Washington County’s borrowing included $1.4 million for computer software to be used whether or not the county was going to conduct a property reassessment.
Last year’s county budget was $71.5 million, so the preliminary budget, sometimes called “the wish list,” shows a $7.3 million increase. At a series of budget hearings next week, county officials will be grilled about any demands that will cause the county to increase spending.
On the expenditure side, the county sees what Roger Metcalfe, director of finance, called “a lot of uncertainty” in paying for children and youth services.
Budgeted for CYS in 2013 was $16.69 million, but the department is estimating a 12 percent increase in services, bringing 2014’s anticipated budget to $18.69 million.
CYS submitted a needs-based budget to the state, but at this point, the county doesn’t know how much of the CYS bill it’s going to be required to foot.
The county learned Friday that the state has added Washington to its list of counties that will receive a block grant to give some flexibility in allocating money to human services. That news came too late to have any impact on the preliminary budget. In 2013, human services accounted for $19.2 million of estimated expenditures, or 26.88 percent of the county budget, the single-largest category.
County taxpayers will also be footing a larger part of the bill for the 911 emergency dispatch because funding from the state is based on telephone land lines, the number of which have decreased since the inception on the 911 program in the mid 1990s.
A surcharge on land lines comes directly from the phone companies to counties.
“If they’re charging cellphone users, that’s not going directly to us,” Metcalfe said of cellphone and smartphone users. “We had $1.6 million, $1.7 million at one time.” The 2014 budget, however, includes only about $1.3 million.
The 911 call center is part of the county’s Department of Public Safety, which has been able to use Act. 13 money to purchase, for example, a vehicle to respond to hazardous materials spills, relieving the burden that would otherwise be felt by the county taxpayer. Act 13 will pay for equipment, but not for the salaries or benefits of those answering calls to the emergency dispatch center.
The county expects a 13 percent increase in the cost of health insurance, plus another 3 percent under the Affordable Care Act. Preliminary numbers for county employees’ pension plan show the taxpayer contribution decreasing by about $160,000 to a total of $3.9 million. The county’s surplus going into 2014 should be about $4.5 million.