Ceraso: Tax hike avoidable
A large tax increase predicted for 2004 can be avoided with prudent cost-saving measures and spending cuts, Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Ceraso said Thursday.
Ceraso's comments came on the day when commissioners unveiled their $290 million preliminary budget for next year that calls for more than $103 million in general operating expenditures but keeps the property tax rate at its current level of 16.99 mills.
The proposed budget calls for spending to be increased by 14 percent over last year. It carries a shortfall of more than $15 million, which will be made up from the county's surplus.
Officials project revenues for next year will be nearly $88 million.
Commissioners will spend the next three weeks finding places to cut to reduce spending levels.
"We're going to do everything we can do not to raise taxes in 2004," Ceraso said. I don't think (a tax increase) is a certainty."
Ceraso said he would support reducing the county's work force through attrition, and layoffs also are a possibility. He also called for a hiring freeze next year.
"We have 12 months to cut or we'll have to take even more drastic action," Ceraso said.
Earlier this week Commissioner P. Scott Conner said bleak financial projections suggest the county will have to raise property taxes by as much as 5 mills next year in order to balance the 2004 budget.
As a result of the deficit spending in the proposed budget, the county will all but deplete its surplus next year.
Finance Director Jody Keating said preliminary estimates indicate that with no additional cuts to the proposed budget the surplus will be just $1.5 million heading into 2004. The surplus is currently at about $18 million but could be less when this fiscal year is completed.
"That is unacceptable," Keating said. "There will be no fund balance for any kind of emergency. We need to have a larger fund balance."
The spending plan released yesterday will not be the final budget approved on Dec. 30. Commissioners routinely introduce a preliminary budget that is heavy on expenses and then work to reduce it over the next several weeks.
Commissioner Tom Balya said that is what will happen this year. He said the $103 million in proposed expenses will be cut when the final budget is approved at the end of the month.
"This is just simply a starting point submitted by the different departments. It's been untouched by the board of commissioners at this point. We're now prepared to do the heavy lifting," Balya said.
How much can be cut is still the major question.
Keating said she will be pleased if commissioners found about $5 million to cut from the proposal. Ceraso said that's also his goal.
But finding that money could prove difficult.
Keating said much of the budget includes spending that is required. Increased personnel costs and a 12 percent rise in health insurance premiums will make it tough for significant reductions to be implemented.
Costs for some state and federally mandated programs also are expected to increase, which in turn increase the county's expenses.
"There's no magic wand to be waved. The state and federal governments all have deficit budgets, and we're at the bottom of the food chain. We're left to plug holes with a flat revenue stream," Balya said.