ShareThis Page
2005 budget adopted; 4-mill tax hike on the way |

2005 budget adopted; 4-mill tax hike on the way

| Friday, December 31, 2004 12:00 a.m

A voluntary plan for Westmoreland County’s development drew a crowd of skeptics and supporters to a commissioners meeting Thursday, while a hefty tax increase was adopted with little hubbub.

As expected, the commissioners adopted the 2005 budget with a tax increase of 4 mills.

The levy of 20.99 mills, which reflects a 23.5 percent increase, means taxes for the average property owner in the county will go up by $78.01, to $409 annually.

While commissioners eliminated a $1.6 million deficit in the $298 million budget, the highest tax increase since a 46 percent hike in 1993 was unavoidable, they said.

“In the limited time that I’ve been here, I was fairly comfortable that cuts we needed to make were made, consistent with being able to continue to provide services. That does not mean this is where it stops. We’re going to continue to examine things, like efficiency, that I haven’t had a chance to get into much,” said Commissioner Phil Light, who has been in office since Oct. 12.

One major additional expense not mentioned in the proposed budget is raises for nonunion employees, who went without last year. The county salary board enacted increases of $770,000 for the 228 employees, about half of which can be recovered through state and federal funding. The apportionment of the increase gave more of a boost, percentage-wise, to junior managers and others lower in the management pecking order. Most managers will see an increase of $1,000 each, plus 2 percent.

Commissioner Tom Balya voted against the raise. Controller Carmen Pedicone and commissioners Tom Ceraso and Phil Light voted for it.

“I didn’t think in this time where we’re asking the property owners to pay more, many of whom are on Social Security and limited incomes, that we should be increasing salaries that much,” Balya said.

Meanwhile, 16 people talked for more than 2 1/2 hours about the county comprehensive plan. The $250,000 plan took two years to write and contains 407 pages of recommendations on economic development, green space preservation, alleviating traffic tie-ups and many other issues of concern to county residents. But the document is entirely voluntary in terms of municipal governments putting the plan into practice.

Nonetheless, several people who spoke railed against the plan, one calling it evidence of “Soviet-style planning.”

Its supporters insisted the plan would make it easier to win grants for such projects as downtown revitalization, trail projects, road improvement and a myriad of other things.

The commissioners passed a measure adopting the plan unanimously, without comment.

The 2005 budget was the subject of a lot of work and discussion by commissioners, most of it in the weeks leading up to yesterday’s meeting.

County leaders have been spending down surpluses of years past for more than a decade, while at the same time warning that the day of a tax increase would come.

Earlier this year, the board considered raising taxes, but ultimately held the line and instituted layoffs to cut spending.

While some managers and row officers have complained that the cuts were too deep, the commissioners used the new staffing levels when configuring the 2005 budget.

To address staffing and attempt to quantify how efficient county government is, the commissioners have said they intend to hire a consultant to study staffing. No action was taken at yesterday’s meeting toward that goal, however.

To remove the $1.6 million deficit and be able to afford $770,000 in raises without increasing taxes even more, the commissioners drew most of the funding for capital improvements from an existing bond issue, instead of the general fund.

The nearly $1.6 million in excess bond funds was available because the commissioners elected not to construct a new juvenile detention center earlier this year.

A major additional expense is the $6 million that must be paid into the county’s pension fund this year. Because the pension fund has declined in value, in part because of a drop in the stock market, the county has had to contribute increasing amounts over the past three years, while the fund balances that had enabled the past decade’s deficit spending were dropping.

The county was able to identify benefits to several service agencies from past bond expenditures, and so was able to charge more than $1.2 million of the county’s annual $8 million in debt service payments to the state and federal governments.

The commissioners said next week they’ll turn their attention to making sure the county is operated in accordance with the budget, if not more frugally.

“It’s always an ongoing process,” Balya said.

Categories: News
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.