Butler County shaves tax increase to 1 mill

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Property taxes in Butler County will be up this year but only by half as much as had been expected.

An eleventh-hour redo of the preliminary spending plan recommended by former Chief Clerk Bill O'Donnell cut the proposed millage hike from 2 mills to 1 mill, boosting the new rate to 24.6 mills.

The budget was approved unanimously last Thursday. Commissioner Jim Eckstein had been lobbying his fellow commissioners, Bill McCarrier and Dale Pinkerton, to trim the proposed tax hike.

Mr. McCarrier, chairman of the panel, said no one wanted a tax increase but it was needed. And paring it to a 1-mill hike took some doing.

The county's annual allocation to Butler County Community College was to have topped $4,976,000 but was cut by $333,000; about $357,000 was shaved from the county's self-insured reserve fund for workman's compensation; and a $900,000 project involving a new roof and air conditioning system for the Downtown Butler government center was postponed.

Together, the savings totaled about $1,590,000 -- the amount yielded by a mill of property tax.

Mr. McCarrier said the 1-mill increase was needed to budget the county's $190-million-plus spending plan.

He said a combination of higher costs and lower revenues left the county in a shortfall position without the increase.

The budget allocates $1.4 million to help subsidize operations at Sunnyview Nursing Home; $1 million for operational expenses and $400,000 for debt service on an earlier capital project.

"We had been hoping we wouldn't have to subsidize anything," Mr. McCarrier said.

He said cuts in federal funding make it difficult for the nursing home to break even.

"They do an excellent job.

Our bed count is always high -- better than 90 percent full.

But, they're good jobs up there and the employees are excellent but we pay higher employee costs than the private facilities," Mr. McCarrier said.

There had been talk in recent years of selling or privatizing operations at the nursing home. Mr. McCarrier said this pending allocation has not renewed any similar discussions to date.

On the revenue side, Mr. McCarrier said the 911 center is bringing in less money than had been anticipated via the $1.25-per-month fee that residents pay on landline telephones -- a tax levied by the state.

"The fund is broke. People are doing away with landlines and using cellphones and that costs us more and brings in less.

We have no idea what we'll get from the (state) wireless fund," he said, noting that the county is allocating $1 million to emergency operations for 2013.

Other higher costs for 2013 include $1.8 million in salary and benefits increases for the county's work force.

Mr. McCarrier said anticipated tax revenue is up for 2013 but not enough to cover the county's costs without the tax increase. One comparatively new receipt expected in 2013 is $900,000 in Marcellus Shale tax revenue.

He said he hopes the revenue from shale will pay for the capital project that's being delayed by a year.

He said the impact of the tax increase on a typical home with a $150,000 market value in the county will be about $25 annually.

About half the county's general fund of $59 million goes to public safety and judicial operations. The total of all county funds is about $190 million.

"I believe this budget is a bare-bones budget. We've made all the cuts we can find to make," Mr. McCarrier said.

Mr. O'Donnell was paid as a consultant to help the county prepare the spending plan. He retired from county service as chief clerk late in 2012.

The last time the county commissioners approved a property tax rate increase was in 2009.

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Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.


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