Most Allegheny County residents have only one question about each year's county budget: Is there a property tax increase?
The answer in County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's 2014 proposal is "no." That's as it should be, especially since county council, with Mr. Fitzgerald's blessing, enacted a 21 percent property tax hike of 1 mill right before he took office in 2012.
The most forward-looking feature in Mr. Fitzgerald's financial plans is a proposal to spend $1 million from the county's $50.4 million capital budget to explore the feasibility of building a rapid bus lane between Downtown and Oakland.
Otherwise, there's nothing fancy in the second budget of his tenure, which is appropriate given the economic climate. The $817.3 million operating budget includes a 2.2 percent increase over the 2013 spending plan, due largely to the cost of wages and benefits that total $387 million, a $13 million increase.
Departments that would receive significantly more money in 2014 include: the solicitor's office, where more staff is needed to study property owned by nonprofit organizations in order to determine whether their tax breaks are legitimate; Children, Youth & Families, where a higher contribution from the county will leverage additional state dollars; and Emergency Services, where the county lost telephone fee revenue as more people ditch land lines for cell phones.
The revenue to pay for the increases comes from $3.8 million more in property tax revenue anticipated next year, $800,000 more in sales taxes, $2 million from the county drink and car rental taxes, $1 million from the hotel tax and $3.3 million more in federal dollars. There's also a significant increase in money coming from various fees -- $4.7 million more for a total of $96.7 million -- in part due to hikes on such things as deeds and mortgages enacted last year.
One item that's bound to trigger a debate with council's budget chairman, Democrat William Robinson of the Hill District, is the county's fund balance. Mr. Fitzgerald is proud of the fact that it has grown from $5.7 million a year ago to $12.2 million now, and he wants to add $2 million to that account in 2014.
By contrast, Mr. Robinson wants to raise another $50 million next year to bolster that account and build a contingency fund for emergencies, which almost certainly would require a tax increase. Even though bolstering savings is a sign of fiscal health, that's not true if the county has to raise taxes to do it.
On balance, Mr. Fitzgerald's proposed operating and capital budgets are the best county taxpayers can get for 2014.
First Published October 13, 2013 8:00 PM