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Lengthy Pa. budget battle could jeopardize local governments

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas addresses the annual State of the County Luncheon at Ferrante's Lakeview on Jan. 14, 2016. The event is held for the commissioners to provide perspective on the county’s most pressing challenges heading into 2016 and offer updates on key agenda items.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas addresses the annual State of the County Luncheon at Ferrante's Lakeview on Jan. 14, 2016. The event is held for the commissioners to provide perspective on the county’s most pressing challenges heading into 2016 and offer updates on key agenda items.

Stalled talks in Harrisburg over how to fund Pennsylvania's $32 billion budget could have a trickle down effect later this year on local governments as they figure out how to pay for mandated social services.

“I think we'll be OK for the immediate future, but if the Legislature continues to play these silly games every year, the county will suffer,” said Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas.

The county's $300 million budget, which operates on a calendar year, counts on $42 million from the state to help pay for its children's bureau, behavioral health and aging programs.

So far in 2017, Westmoreland County has received $24 million in state funds, with another $18 million expected during the rest of the year, according to Finance Director Meghan McCandless.

The state allotted Allegheny County's Department of Human Services $132 million of Act 148 funding for fiscal year 2017-18, which runs through June 30, 2018. The department received its first quarter advance of $32.9 million in August, budget director Mary Soroka said in an email.

“I will continue to manage cash by reviewing weekly deposits and payments going out of the county,” Soroka wrote, “but at this point, the state budget has not impacted our receipt of funding or our ability to pay service providers.”

That wasn't the case during a prolonged state budget impasse two years ago, when partisan gridlock stretched out for nine months and forced some social service agencies to lay off workers.

Allegheny County continued to pay employees and covered operating costs, but service providers were not paid for several months until state funding became available, Soroka said.

That impasse forced Westmoreland County officials to close three of its 13 senior citizen centers.

Butler County isn't ready to “sound an alarm” but are hopeful lawmakers can agree soon on a way to pay for the new budget, said Leslie Osche, chairwoman of the county's board of commissioners.

“It's disappointing that we have come to this point once again,” she said.

State lawmakers this year passed an appropriations bill hours before the fiscal year was to begin July 1.

That plan, though, did not address a $1.5 billion deficit from the year before or a projected $700 million shortfall in the 2017-18 budget.

Gov. Tom Wolf last month transferred about $750 million among bank accounts to help pay for some state programs through Sept. 15. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella in August authorized a $750 million line of credit for the state.

Osche said Butler County's human services department has been warned layoffs are possible if no budget deal is reached.

“We would certainly hope it doesn't come to that point,” she said.

The opioid-addiction crisis has increased the caseload for Children and Youth Services as well as adult protective services, Osche said.

“If we start to have to cut staff in those areas, it's almost impossible to address these emergencies,” she said. “Literally, people could die if it got to that point.”

Westmoreland County officials have started the process of figuring out what to do should no additional money arrive from the state this year.

Commissioners said some of the county's $6.6 million surplus funds could be used to help pay for state programs through the remainder of the year.

“That fund balance is less than it was two years ago, so our ability to do it is much shorter than it was,” Kopas said.

Commissioners are considering bank loans to ensure services can continue.

“We have relationships in place to work with the local banks in case we have to take out a line of credit,” said Commissioner Gina Cerilli. “We'll have to wait and see.”

Staff writers Theresa Clift and Madasyn Czebiniak contributed.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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