Westmoreland County officials plan rally to avert repeat of budget impasse
Westmoreland County officials concerned about a repeat of an eight-month state budget stalemate plan a rally to show the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf the importance of passing the 2016-17 budget by the June 30 deadline.
“We wanted to make sure our voices are heard” in Harrisburg, said Dirk Matson, the county's human services director.
The rally is planned for noon to 1:15 p.m. June 22 at Courthouse Square in Greensburg.
County officials will speak at the rally, and invitations have been extended to representatives from the county's high schools, colleges and universities, human service providers and consumers, Matson said. All legislators representing the county were notified of the rally, as well as the governor's office.
They are awaiting responses from invited speakers, Matson said.
“We're trying to remind the state it is unacceptable to have a budget stalemate of that magnitude. We (the county), were right on the brink of having to borrow money,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.
“I am asking the state legislators and the governor to reach across the aisle ... to give a little bit to compromise ... because the county and the schools cannot survive another budget crisis,” said Commissioner Gina Cerilli.
In case of a repeat of the budget debacle, Matson said, the county has notified human service providers that it may shut off payments in mid-August.
The budget impasse, which wasn't resolved until March, caused “a tremendous delay in payments” to agencies and social service providers, Kopas said. Some social service agencies were able to weather the budget impasse, while others could not, he said. Among them were senior citizen centers that closed when funding ran out, he noted.
State legislators are supposed to pass a budget that the governor will sign by June 30, but Wolf and the General Assembly could not agree on how to fund state expenditures until March.
Payments to private contractors for the Children's Bureau, juvenile probation office, behavioral health services and childhood development services were cut off in early winter when funds ran out, Matson said. About 90 percent of a $15 million block grant to those social service agencies was delayed.
“Who gets lost in all of this is the service providers and the consumers,” Kopas said.
Commissioner Charles Anderson could not be reached for comment.
The budget impasse “has been very difficult for many school districts,” Hempfield Area Superintendent Barbara Marin said.
Hempfield Area is still awaiting a payment of about $8 million from the state for its education subsidies, said Wayne Wismar, district business manager. It typically gets large payments in June, he said.
The district was very fortunate this school year because it was able to dip into a “very healthy fund balance” to pay bills and avoid borrowing money, Wismar said. The district won't fare as well if the state fails to pass a budget again, he noted.
“We cannot go as far if this repeats in 2016-2017,” Wismar said.
Norwin Superintendent William Kerr said the district received $4.2 million in state subsidies on Thursday, which will help meet the payroll and bills in June.
“However, the delay in distribution of PlanCon (for construction reimbursement) funds of $1.2 million is a real challenge for meeting expenses in July,” Kerr said. “The school district may very well need to draw on a line of credit until local real estate revenues begin to flow in early August.”
Matson said he is optimistic the state will approve a spending plan by June 30, “or very close to on time” because legislators don't want to go through the protracted budget battle another year.
State Rep. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, shares that optimism, in part because it's an election year for every member of the House of Representatives and half of the state Senate.
“I think it will have an effect on it (budget passage). They're (legislators) not going to want to hear about their schools closing” when they campaign for re-election, Ward said.
Ward said she doesn't believe Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature are “as far apart as we were last year.”
Norwin's school board and administration are “cautiously optimistic” that Wolf and state legislators will not repeat the impasse.
“Hopefully, there were some lessons learned, including that finding middle ground on budget issues will best serve the public, and in our case, our students,” Kerr said.
In case of inclement weather on June 22, the rally will be held June 29. Those planning to attend can check the county's website, www.co.westmoreland.pa.us at 11 a.m. June 22.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.