The Schuylkill County Commissioners Wednesday adopted a preliminary budget Wednesday calling for a 2-mill tax increase in 2014. This is the first tax increase since 2004.

The three commissioners, Frank Staudenmeier, chairman, and George Halcovage and Gary Hess, voted for the adoption of the resolution calling for the tax increase. Minority Commissioner Hess commented that the commissioners, as a team, have a fiscal responsibility to fulfill. He added that over the past two years expenses have risen, but revenues have not kept up.

Staudenmeier said the board did everything possible to balance the budget without raising taxes but was unable to keep up with the rising costs. The commissioners' job is to provide service to its citizens, he said.

In the past the board was able to dip into a reserve fund.

Fiscal Officer Paul Buber said to help next year's budget the county has borrowed $3.4 million from the reserve fund which is down to $4.5 million from $7.9 million and an amount has to be kept in reserve to meet any catastrophes.

Buber said a home with a market value of $59,280 is assessed at $29,640. The 2-mill increase would be $4.94 a month. Staudenmeier added property owners pay only 20 percent of their tax bill to the county, school districts get 65 percent, and municipalities 15 percent.

Mark Scarbinsky, county administrator, said the last increase was in 2004 when millage was raised from 8.88 mills to 11.98 mills, followed by 3.1 mill increase. He reported the county did not encounter a budget deficit until 2008 and there were deficits for the next five years through 2013.

He added that there were sufficient resources to offset the deficits. The cost of living over the last nine-year period has continued to increase at an average of 2.6 percent per year, Scarbinsky said, and the cost of government continued to escalate.

Scarbinsky presented the board a number of options to consider before adopting the budget, including initiating a hiring freeze. Other ideas are a freeze on all travel, except mandatory training, eliminating and consolidating positions where feasible, right-sizing operations through employee furloughs in non-core/non-critical areas, and using more part-time employees and outsourcing of specific operational functions.

"We need to work with our legislative delegation in seeking alternatives to the real estate tax which presently is our major source of revenue," Scarbinsky told the commissioners.

"We need to continue redefining and maintaining a focus on our core functions and priorities," he added. "The unsustainability of wage and benefits packages has to be thoroughly addressed if the county is to maintain fiscal stability."

New millage

The proposed 2014 real estate millage is established at 13.98 mills to include 13.83 mills for the general fund account (138.3 cents on each $100 of assessed value) and .15 mills for funded debt account (1.5 cents on each $100 assessed valuation). The per capita tax will remain at $5 per adult.

The aggregate expenditure in the proposed budget is limited to $50,008,381, supplemented by $3,434,395 from the general fund unassigned fund balance. For the funded debt account the amount of debt service is $478,805.

Expenditure limits for the various departments proposed are as follows:

Rest Haven Home and Hospital, $12,646,092; 9-1-1 Communications, $9,081,509 to be offset by revenues of $5,172,178 and by a carry-over unrestricted net position of $3,909,331; Capital Project Fund Account, $2,850,00 to be offset by revenues of $1,000 and by a carry-over restricted fund balance of $2,849,000; Capital Reserve Fund Account, $1,172,249, to be offset by revenues of $185,000 and a carry-over restricted fund balance of $987,249; and Workers' Compensation Account, $762,200.

Special revenue funds:

Liquid Fuels, expenditures, $1,988,005 and revenues, $677,500; demolition, expenditures, $335,837, and revenues, $383,137; farmland preservations, expenditures, and revenues $64,882; Human Service Complex, expenditures and revenues, $356,596; other agency funds, expenditures and revenues, $9,634,768; Office of Senior Services, expenditures and revenues, $6,214,65; Drug and Alcohol Agency, expenditures and revenues, $2,030,501; Mental Health Agency, expenditures and revenues, $6,642,732; Children and Youth Services Agency, expenditures and revenues, $17,309,201; and Domestic Relations Bureau, expenditures and revenues, $1,395,866.

The county budgeted for special programs such as Aging Advisory, offender supervision, Schuylkill County Block Grant Program, Affordable Housing, driving under the influence, Schuylkill Transportation System, Schuylkill County Transportation Authority, Economic Opportunity Council, Marcellus Shale set at $11,930.087.

The final budget will be adopted Dec. 18.