For the ninth year in a row, Carbon County taxpayers should not see an increase in their county taxes.

But Carbon officials say next year may bring some challenges for the future as the financial surplus continues to shrink.

During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, Commissioner William O'Gurek, chairman, provided a breakdown of the proposed 2011 spending plan, which leaves the tax rate at 6.893 mills.

"The proposed budget adopted by the commissioners today means that there should be no increase in taxes for the ninth consecutive year," O'Gurek said. "The millage, which was last increased in 2002, will remain at 6.893 mills."

If the spending plan is passed on Dec. 9, with no changes, it means that a county resident who owns a home with an assessed value of $50,000 will be required to pay $344.65 in county real estate taxes for 2011.

O'Gurek explained that expenses for the upcoming year are anticipated to be $2.2 million more than the revenue the county will bring in, so to help offset those costs, the county will transfer $2.5 million from its Weatherwood fund into the general fund.

He further broke down the $50.9 million spending plan, which includes $46,371,023 for operating funds; $2,450,000 for capital projects; and $2,087,146 for special projects, by highlighting major expenses that the county will face next year.

Employee salaries and health benefits will take a big chunk of the budget, costing the county an estimated $14.9 million. Other big ticket expenses include workmen's compensation, liability insurance and the county's annual required contribution to the retirement fund. These items total $1.95 million.

In capital projects, the county anticipates spending $500,000 at the communications center and additional funds for projects at the prison, Carbon County Environmental Education Center and other departments. It will also spend over $110,000 for other smaller projects that include upgrades in computer equipment and radios.

"The commissioners have allowed budgeting for only what is necessary," O'Gurek said. "Requests totaled over $197,000 and there is no question that the status of the state and federal budgets, as they pertain to revenue programs that the county operates, will adversely affect those county programs going forward."

He noted that programs that have been affected by state cuts, which the county will help fund next year, include the Carbon County Conservation District, MH/MR services, and the Solid Waste department. Funding for each of these programs will top out at over $400,000.

The county will also look at what it plans to do with the Solid Waste program, which has lost all of its state funding. For now, O'Gurek said, the county will operate it on a $60,000 budget, but will be looking at what it can do with the program.

Carbon County will also use hotel tax revenue that it receives from hotel room bookings in the county and general fund contributions to help offset the $268,000 in expenses that Mauch Chunk Lake Park experiences annually.

O'Gurek also pointed out some positive changes that the county officials have completed with budget money.

Over the last three years, the county has been able to function without the nearly $4.5 million in revenues that it received through the occupational tax, which officials eliminated in 2008.

During that time, O'Gurek said, the county has been able to complete numerous projects, including a $1.85 million in renovation costs and staff expenses for a third judge; $1.4 million in renovation costs for the Susquehanna Street building; $1 million for renovations at the courthouse annex, courthouse exterior work, roofing and HVAC expenses; and $1.5 million for a new communications system.

O'Gurek said the county anticipates a $5.1 million ending balance at the end of the year, which is $3.2 million lower than it was last year and $5.3 million lower than two years ago.

"The proposed budget calls for a continued commitment of each of us, every department head, every office holder, and every employee to not only live within the means of that spending plan, but to keep watchful eyes on expenses, knowing that the county cannot continue to balance its books very long by drawing from a diminishing surplus," he said. "It's likely the 2012 budget will be an even more difficult challenge to all of us."

Commissioners Charles Getz and Wayne Nothstein also weighed in on next year's spending plan, as well as the challenges they will face, stating that changes need to be made to secure a strong financial future for Carbon County over the next few years.

"We cannot keep going on our surplus from the sale of Weatherwood," Getz said. "We talked about how we can get our revenues in line with our spending because you can't keep running a business spending more than you're taking in. We have to sit down this coming year and say 'we can cut this or cut that.' We certainly don't want to cut any employees and we would like to continue giving raises, but we're going to have to find some way get these expenses in line with our revenue. We have a tough year ahead of us."

Nothstein said a lot of the financial problems that the county is encountering is due to state and federal funding cuts and mandates.

He noted that the costs will continue to rise throughout the years to come, but funding continues to decrease.

Nothstein and Getz pointed out that the down economy, which is causing more foreclosures and less new homes being built, has had an effect on the amount of revenue the county has been receiving, which is not helping matters.

The preliminary budget is scheduled to be adopted in three weeks, at the commissioners' weekly meeting on Dec. 9. Until then, it is available for review at the commissioners' office in the county courthouse annex in Jim Thorpe between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.