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Expenses spike in Westmoreland's $333M early budget

| Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Westmoreland County commissioners announced Thursday they won't raise property taxes but offered few specifics about how they plan to cut a $16.5 million budget deficit projected for 2013.

Commissioners detailed a $333.3 million preliminary budget that dramatically raised expenses, despite flat revenues in the wake of state spending cuts.

“This is a wish list, and our job in the next five weeks will be to cut this down as close to the bone as possible. It's going to be a heck of a lot less,” Chairman Charles Anderson said.

Fifty-one percent of expenditures are dedicated to human service programs.

Nearly two-thirds of the budget pays for services, mandated by the state, that commissioners have no discretion to cut.

Commissioners carved out a $127 million general fund to pay for general county operations. That portion of the spending plan can be altered. The general fund counts on $110 million in revenues from property taxes and other fees.

Anderson said service cuts and staff layoffs will be considered to reduce spending.

“Everything is on the table. Nothing is off limits,” Anderson said.

Real estate taxes, though, would remain unchanged from the current 20.99 mills, Anderson said.

Democratic minority Commissioner Ted Kopas said he wants to see substantial spending cuts in the final budget, slated for approval on Dec. 20.

“A deficit of this magnitude is totally unacceptable. We have a lot of work to do,” Kopas said.

As it stands today, the county would need to tap into its $37 million surplus to balance the budget, leaving a $20 million safety net for years ahead.

While commissioners declined to reveal specific cuts that could be made, officials traditionally have trimmed spending by reducing capital costs.

The proposed budget lists more than $5.3 million in capital projects. Those include the purchase of 11 vehicles, $1.5 million for new court buildings for magistrates in West Newton and Scottdale, furniture for the adult probation office and an $800,000 project to renovate the vacant waste-to-energy plant in Hempfield that was shuttered more than a decade ago.

In February, the Republican majority passed its first budget, a $315 million spending plan that used $7.7 million from the surplus fund.

Republicans Anderson and Tyler Courtney reopened the budget after taking control of the county commission from the Democrats, which held the majority for nearly six decades.

In December 2011, Kopas and former Commissioner Tom Balya passed a $313 million balanced that included 15 percent across-the-board spending cuts.

The Republicans said those cuts were punitive and not crafted to operate county government efficiently.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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