Carbon County taxpayers may see a decrease in their county taxes in 2012.
During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, the board voted 2-1 to present the proposed 2012 spending plan, which calls for a 1-mill reduction in taxes.
Minority Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, who will become a majority commissioner in January when incoming commissioner-elect Tom Gerhard takes office on Jan. 3, cast the sole "no" vote. He said it was because he felt the proposed budget was irresponsibly spending the county's financial surplus.
"I think it is a totally irresponsible budget that was presented," Nothstein said. "There were no denials of any request for equipment or furniture. Nothing was refused."
He added that the proposed budget takes the general fund's beginning balance, which included the proceeds from the sale of Weatherwood, from $7.5 million down to less than $1.2 million.
"We all know our budgets are going to be cut by the state and federal government," Nothstein continued. "We have a large deficit to make up in this budget with the cutbacks. Our needs are growing in the county but the revenue is declining."
If the spending plan is approved by the current board on Dec. 22, and no changes occur after the new administration takes office next year, the county tax rate will drop from 6.893 mills to 5.893 mills. This means that a homeowner with a $50,000 home assessed at $25,000 could expect to pay $147.33, $25 less than in 2011. The new majority commissioners will have the opportunity to reopen the budget to revisit the figures in January, if they so desire.
Commissioner William O'Gurek, chairman, explained that the action he and Commissioner Charles Getz took calls for a 1-mill tax reduction in county real estate taxes. One mill generates $1,533,000.
"I think the good thing here is we're able to give the taxpayers of Carbon County a break," he said. "Real Estate taxes in this county have remained the same for the last nine years. We also eliminated the occupational tax, which gave money back to the working men and women and now we feel that it is appropriate to give back to the property owners in a 1-mill reduction in real estate taxes."
He noted that there are multiple factors that the pair felt contributed to the county being able to reduce the millage while balancing the $46,876,317 spending plan. Some factors, which O'Gurek highlighted, include real estate bringing in $8.2 million, a reduction in workers' compensation to $346,508 from over $1 million; refinancing $7.3 million of the county's debt to save $800,000, and a lower budgeted Annual Required Contribution for the retirement fund.
O'Gurek also highlighted some of the expenses that the county will face in 2012, including $12.5 million in payroll; a 5 percent projected raise for all non-union county employees; $3.5 million in employee benefits; $600,476 for the retirement fund's ARC; workers' compensation; and debt services.
"Today we haven't spent a penny. This is a spending plan," O'Gurek said. "There are numbers in there (the 2012 proposed spending plan) that we feel are appropriate and numbers that we can live with as a county. There are requests for minor purchases, there are also requests for capital purchases, additional staff members and staff changes. Those numbers equal a little over a million and I say it's now the challenge of the next administration to live within its budget.
"I can tell you that in preparing this budget, Mr. Nothstein said no to $35,000 in minor equipment purchases, $91,000 in capital purchases, and also $131,000 in contingency for minor purchases and $92,000 in contingency for capital purchases. Collectively, that's $350,000 and I submit to him that as a new majority of this board, he now has a challenge to deal with that.
"If he feels the budget doesn't have an adequate carry-over balance at the end of the year, he can take a look at the million dollars that is set aside for the new positions and for new equipment and can take a look at the $350,000 that he said no to in the preparing of this budget and he can have a bigger surplus than what this budget calls for. But that is not our challenge. Our challenge is done. That challenge is with the next administration to live within the means of its budget," O'Gurek added.
Nothstein responded, saying that just because money is in the contingency fund, doesn't mean it has to be spent.
Nothstein then pointed out a few things that he didn't approve of in the budget, including the 5 percent raise.
"There are some departments that need additional help," he said of the potential raises. "Some salaries should be adjusted, I agree there, but not for everyone. It says that non-union employees will get a 5 percent raise, but that opens up the doors for union negotiations. I think 5 percent at this time is too much. I would have went for 3 percent like we have in the past. Can our taxpayers afford it? Can the people losing their homes afford it? Can our seniors afford it? I don't think so."
He added that the $300,000 additional positions, benefits and other expenses is also not a good idea for the county's financial future.
"Sure it's great if we could do it this year and reduce taxes but I certainly think it's going to jeopardize our programs in the future years and call for a greater tax increase," Nothstein said. "It's going to force closings of senior centers, and eventually force layoffs. This is going to affect us big time. I certainly think they should re-look at the budget and make some adjustments before the end of the year."
Getz then accused Nothstein of lying to employees over previous raises.
"I remember when a while back we all sat here and we agreed upon a 3 percent increase," Getz said. "You went down to different offices and told people you wanted to give them a 6 percent increase, but Bill and I wouldn't go along with it. Now we're doing it and now you're against it?"
Nothstein responded, saying that he feels that some, but not all employees should get a bigger raise because they are underpaid.
"Certain positions do deserve more pay," he said. "If you look at some of the salaries, some are living on $8 or $9 an hour with a family. How can they live?"
Nothstein said, naming one individual in a high-paying position, that if you give everyone a 5 percent raise, it will help those who are already paid more, more than those who make less.
O'Gurek responded, saying that it is not fair to single out anyone for the pay they receive.
"I think that is irresponsible," he said.
Nothstein clarified that he wanted to illustrate that 5 percent is a lot more for somebody on the higher end of the pay scale than for somebody that is making $8 or $9 an hour.
The 2012 proposed spending plan is now available for public inspection. Anyone wishing to view the budget can go to the commissioners' office, located on the third floor of the courthouse annex in Jim Thorpe, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, until Dec. 21.
The budget will then be presented for adoption at the commissioners' regular meeting at 10:30 a.m., on Dec. 22, in the commissioners' conference room 1.