No tax increase expected in Westmoreland County budget

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Westmoreland County Commissioners are expected to adopt a 2014 budget with no tax increase next Thursday.

The average property owner in the county will continue to pay about $430 a year in property taxes. That’s based on the average property assessed at $20,400, with a tax rate of 20.99 mills. A mill of tax equals $1 for each $1,000 of assessed value.

The county not raised the property tax rate since 2005.

The commissioners adopted a preliminary 2014 budget of nearly $350 million Nov. 23, with a deficit of $19 million.

But that is an annual “wish list” of what each department would like. Commissioners are expected to pare that deficit by next week through spending cuts and the use of some of the county’s $34 million surplus.

Last year, commissioners used about $6 million of the surplus to balance the budget.

“The budget is a work in progress,” Chuck Anderson, chairman of the commissioners, said. “We’ve got their wants, now we have to determine needs.”

“We’d like to get the deficit down to $3 million or $4 million,” he said, “that would be about 1 percent of the budget."

Commissioner Ted Kopas said the challenge for the county is that revenues remain flat but expenses continue to rise.

He said that new construction added to the property tax rolls is offset each year by tax appeals and demolition of aging properties.

About $80 million in annual revenue comes from county property taxes. The majority of budget revenue, about $145 million, comes from state and federal funds and primarily goes for human services that the county is mandated to provide. Another $60 million  comes from county fees, such as marriage and dog licenses, and from court costs, such as fees for filing civil and criminal legal papers.

Human service programs make up the majority of the county’s expenditures, about 52 percent. Public safety, including the county’s 911 center, makes up about 16 percent of the budget; the court system about 9 percent, and general government administration about 7 percent.

The state and federal human service funds are used for Westmoreland Manor, the county’s home for the aged; senior citizen centers and home aides for low-income seniors; services for those with behavior and development problems; as well as programs for abused and neglected children.

Mr. Anderson said the county has tried to reduce the effects of recent federal and state cutbacks for human services by becoming a block grant county, which allows the county to move money from one of nine agencies to another to reduce administrative costs.

“This has allowed us at the juvenile detention center, for example, to have just one director instead of two,” he said.

“That’s why we hired Dirk Matson, our human services director, who has 30 years experience in human services. He’ll be able to help us manage the costs so we can continue to use as much money as possible for services.”

Federal sequestration budget cuts caused two major issues this year for the airport in the county. The Federal Aviation Administration threatened to cut funds for six employees who man the airport tower at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe, and the Air Force Thunderbirds canceled a performance at the Westmoreland Air Show.

Mr. Anderson said the FAA has agreed to continue to pay for the tower employees this year, and the county is hopeful the air show can return as well.

He noted the county is helping Westmoreland County Community College build a new branch campus in Latrobe and is working with the college to establish an advanced technology center at the former Sony plant near New Stanton to train local workers.

Rising costs for the county include contributions to the pension fund for approximately 1,800 county employees.

And health care costs for employees continue to increase, as well. They have risen annually by about 5 percent a year, Mr. Kopas said.

Mr. Anderson said the county is in negotiations with both UPMC and Highmark to keep health care costs down by funding a wellness program for county employees, which provides financial incentives for workers to remain physically active and to stop smoking.

“This is a great place to live,” Mr. Anderson said, “with all our activities and parks and the mountains."

“My goal is to deliver services to residents at an economical price for taxpayers,” said Mr. Kopas, noting the preliminary budget does not contain any cuts in services.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer:

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