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2005 budget adopted; 4-mill tax hike on the way

| Friday, Dec. 31, 2004

A voluntary plan for Westmoreland County's development drew a crowd of skeptics and supporters to a commissioners meeting Thursday, while a hefty tax increase was adopted with little hubbub.

As expected, the commissioners adopted the 2005 budget with a tax increase of 4 mills.

The levy of 20.99 mills, which reflects a 23.5 percent increase, means taxes for the average property owner in the county will go up by $78.01, to $409 annually.

While commissioners eliminated a $1.6 million deficit in the $298 million budget, the highest tax increase since a 46 percent hike in 1993 was unavoidable, they said.

"In the limited time that I've been here, I was fairly comfortable that cuts we needed to make were made, consistent with being able to continue to provide services. That does not mean this is where it stops. We're going to continue to examine things, like efficiency, that I haven't had a chance to get into much," said Commissioner Phil Light, who has been in office since Oct. 12.

One major additional expense not mentioned in the proposed budget is raises for nonunion employees, who went without last year. The county salary board enacted increases of $770,000 for the 228 employees, about half of which can be recovered through state and federal funding. The apportionment of the increase gave more of a boost, percentage-wise, to junior managers and others lower in the management pecking order. Most managers will see an increase of $1,000 each, plus 2 percent.

Commissioner Tom Balya voted against the raise. Controller Carmen Pedicone and commissioners Tom Ceraso and Phil Light voted for it.

"I didn't think in this time where we're asking the property owners to pay more, many of whom are on Social Security and limited incomes, that we should be increasing salaries that much," Balya said.

Meanwhile, 16 people talked for more than 2 1/2 hours about the county comprehensive plan. The $250,000 plan took two years to write and contains 407 pages of recommendations on economic development, green space preservation, alleviating traffic tie-ups and many other issues of concern to county residents. But the document is entirely voluntary in terms of municipal governments putting the plan into practice.

Nonetheless, several people who spoke railed against the plan, one calling it evidence of "Soviet-style planning."

Its supporters insisted the plan would make it easier to win grants for such projects as downtown revitalization, trail projects, road improvement and a myriad of other things.

The commissioners passed a measure adopting the plan unanimously, without comment.

The 2005 budget was the subject of a lot of work and discussion by commissioners, most of it in the weeks leading up to yesterday's meeting.

County leaders have been spending down surpluses of years past for more than a decade, while at the same time warning that the day of a tax increase would come.

Earlier this year, the board considered raising taxes, but ultimately held the line and instituted layoffs to cut spending.

While some managers and row officers have complained that the cuts were too deep, the commissioners used the new staffing levels when configuring the 2005 budget.

To address staffing and attempt to quantify how efficient county government is, the commissioners have said they intend to hire a consultant to study staffing. No action was taken at yesterday's meeting toward that goal, however.

To remove the $1.6 million deficit and be able to afford $770,000 in raises without increasing taxes even more, the commissioners drew most of the funding for capital improvements from an existing bond issue, instead of the general fund.

The nearly $1.6 million in excess bond funds was available because the commissioners elected not to construct a new juvenile detention center earlier this year.

A major additional expense is the $6 million that must be paid into the county's pension fund this year. Because the pension fund has declined in value, in part because of a drop in the stock market, the county has had to contribute increasing amounts over the past three years, while the fund balances that had enabled the past decade's deficit spending were dropping.

The county was able to identify benefits to several service agencies from past bond expenditures, and so was able to charge more than $1.2 million of the county's annual $8 million in debt service payments to the state and federal governments.

The commissioners said next week they'll turn their attention to making sure the county is operated in accordance with the budget, if not more frugally.

"It's always an ongoing process," Balya said.

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