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Reassessment not a priority in '02

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, May 14, 2012, 5:10 a.m.

Westmoreland County officials are considering borrowing as much as $25 million next year to pay for two big-ticket capital projects, while a third proposal to revamp the county's outdated tax-assessment system appears to have been placed on the back burner.

County commissioners said Tuesday that high-cost items, such as a $15 million upgrade of the emergency radio dispatch system and a $10 million price tag for a proposed new juvenile justice center, are targeted for next year.

Neither project is included in the proposed 2002 budget, which as of now lists more than $271 million in expenses. But both projects are expected to be financed through loans taken out next year.

The capital projects come as commissioners try to pare down the proposed spending, which is expected to outpace revenues by more than $7 million next year. The deficit is to be paid from a $21 million operating surplus, which officials say will turn into a $7 million shortfall by 2004 if current spending levels are not reduced. No tax increase for next year is planned.

"Certain things you continue to have to do. We have to move county government forward. You can't stop time from moving," said Commissioner Tom Balya. "We want to make sure we are providing the services we need, too."

Both the radio dispatch upgrade and juvenile center construction projects have been bandied about by county officials for the last several years.

The radio project, which will convert the emergency 911 dispatch system to high-frequency transmission channels, is already under way. Earlier this year commissioners approved nearly $90,000 to pay for preliminary engineering work needed for the project.

Officials estimate the conversion to the 800-megahertz system will cost about $15 million. Time is of importance as the county is under a mandate from the Federal Communications Commission to have a plan for the new frequencies in place by 2004.

Construction of the proposed juvenile justice center in Hempfield Township also could get the go-ahead next year. Commissioners want to build a new facility near the old juvenile detention center that will house 30 young inmates, as well as the county's juvenile probation department.

That project would increase the county's capacity at the detention center by six - from the current 24 to as many as 30 inmates and ease a space crunch at other facilities that are part of the juvenile justice system.

All three commissioners said both the dispatch system upgrade and the juvenile justice center project are high priorities. Where they part company is with the timing for the projects.

Balya and Commissioner Tom Ceraso yesterday endorsed borrowing money next year because of low interest rates.

Commissioner P. Scott Conner said the clouded nature of the county's financial picture should dictate a more guarded approach to future borrowing.

"I don't think the county is in any shape to borrow money at this point until we answer a lot of unanswered questions about our financial shape," Conner said.

Meanwhile, revamping the county's tax-assessment system, which could cost between $3 million and $6 million, is not a priority under consideration, all three commissioners said.

The current assessment system has been in place for nearly 30 years and is woefully out of date, according to a Tribune-Review investigation that found tax rates in the county on average are more than 30 percent skewed.

The study revealed that, on average, taxpayers in more affluent communities pay property taxes that are less than the value of their homes, while poorer residents' tax bills appear to be inflated.

Commissioners have suggested a countywide reassessment is necessary but have yet to commit it.

Ceraso said he favors fixing the assessment system but does not want to borrow money to do it.

"I'd rather pay cash for a reassessment, and we don't have the cash right now," Ceraso said.

Balya said reassessment might have to wait for state lawmakers to approve a funding plan to help counties undertake the recanvassing.

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