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Westmoreland County's $42M surplus nearly gone

Rich Cholodofsky
| Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

A healthy surplus of nearly $42 million on the books four years ago is close to gone in a preliminary budget released Thursday by Westmoreland County commissioners.

The $310 million spending plan carries a $22.3 million deficit that would be covered by surplus funds — leaving the county with just $1.4 million in reserve.

“It was spent,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said of the surplus that has gradually declined since 2011.

Republican commissioners Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney took office in 2012 promising to be financial watchdogs and balance the budget that for years had expenses outpace revenues. But deficit spending continued in three years of Republican budgets.

Kopas, the lone Democrat on the board, voted against the three previous budgets, saying the deficits in the spending plans were too high.

Anderson on Thursday said that despite the dwindling surplus there are ample dollars in reserve and the county's financial outlook has improved. He said that changes in the budget before its adoption on Dec. 17 would leave the county with much more than the $1.4 million of reserves projected.

“We haven't been squandering money all over the place. I don't think the (surplus) is that low. We've been very fiscally responsible,” Anderson said.

He cautioned that the final budget will have little resemblance to the document presented on Thursday.

“This is a wish list budget that department heads tell us what they want and what they need. We'll go through and make executive decisions,” Anderson said.

Commissioners routinely have pared down preliminary spending plans by cutting line items and proposed spending.

The 2016 preliminary budget includes more than $8.6 million in capital improvements, including a $2.2 million purchase of land to add to Twin Lakes Park and $3.7 million in repairs and enhancements to county buildings.

The budget proposal includes no increase in property taxes, which have remained at 20.99 mills since 2005.

“A $22 million operating deficit is beyond unacceptable. It's utterly ridiculous,” Kopas said. “The budget is about priorities and over the next month and again in January, it will be up to us to identify the priorities.”

Courtney, who will leave office at the end of the year after being defeated in this month's election, refused to comment when asked about the proposed budget.

Although the current board of commissioners will take a final vote on the budget next month, the incoming board, which will include Anderson, Kopas and Democrat Gina Cerilli, in January can craft a new spending plan for 2016.

Anderson said he would oppose any tax hikes, service cuts or layoffs of county workers as part of a final budget. Kopas said he opposes a tax hike but that it was premature to discuss service cuts or layoffs.

Officials said drafting of the preliminary budget was made difficult because of the ongoing state budget impasse. The lack of a state budget meant the county could only estimate what it expects to receive in state funding, according to Meghan McCandless, the county's finance director.

The proposed budget includes more than $88 million from state and federal grants to operate mandated social service programs.

Westmoreland County's budgets for more than a decade have been in deficit, and had to be balanced using surplus funds.

McCandless said deficits ranged from $722,000 in 2010 to an estimated shortfall of $5.9 million at the end of this year.

As deficits grew, the county surplus dwindled.

McCandless said a $1.4 million surplus would not protect the county against unexpected expenses throughout the next year.

“I would be comfortable with a surplus of at least $10 million,” McCandless said.

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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