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Preliminary county budget soaked in red ink

| Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland County commissioners on Thursday vowed there will be no tax increase next year even as they approved a preliminary 2014 budget that carries a $19 million deficit.

“This is the wish list, and our task over the next month is to put it into reality,” said commission Chairman Charles Anderson. “Even if it passed the way it is now, there won't be a tax increase. I guarantee you it won't be what it is today.”

The $348.5 million proposed spending plan reflects a $7 million increase in expenditures from the current year.

If approved in its current form, the budget would halve the county's $32 million surplus, according to financial director Sandy Flanders.

General operating expenses for local programs in the preliminary 2014 plan are pegged at $139.5 million, which is $27 million more than commissioners expect to spend this year.

“It's a disaster,” said Commissioner Ted Kopas. “A $20 million deficit seems to be glaring. It's unacceptable as it is.”

Kopas said the deficit will be reduced through spending cuts, not through a tax increase. The county has not raised taxes since 2005.

Commissioners said the real estate tax rate is projected to stay at 20.99 mills. A mill of taxes in the county generates $3.8 million.

The preliminary budget includes increases to health insurance costs for employees; a $3.5 million hike in allocations made to outside agencies such as county authorities and community groups; and $3.5 million in capital requests.

Commissioners expect to pay $9.7 million into the county's pension fund next year and are considering a request from the public safety department to allocate about $4.7 million to upgrade emergency dispatching and response equipment.

Commissioner Tyler Courtney said officials will review those funding requests and look to trim spending.

“I'd like to reduce the deficit to $3 million. We'll challenge ourselves to get there,” Courtney said.

Anderson and Courtney, who form the Republican majority on the board, approved their first county budget last year. It carried a deficit of about $6 million. It was balanced using a surplus account as well as more than $2 million the county received from impact fees generated by Marcellus shale gas wells.

Kopas, a Democrat, voted against last year's budget.

The 2014 preliminary budget includes no cuts in services.

“Our overall goal is to keep the lights on and service the county,” Anderson said.

Commissioners expect to enact a final budget on Dec. 19.

“There's wants and needs, and these are wants,” Courtney said of the proposed budget. “We're challenged with trying to figure out the needs. Obviously, you'd like to have a balanced budget that passes this year, but we probably won't.”

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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