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Ax to fall in Carbon?

Published December 07. 2012 05:04PM

Carbon County commissioners may lay off employees in order to avoid a 58 percent property tax increase, Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard said after a public meeting Thursday.

"Right now we're not going to comment on how many layoffs there will be here in the county. There's certainly going to be some layoffs. A lot of difficult decisions to make," he told reporters. "The three commissioners are sitting down with our county administrator, working diligently at this, trying come up with cutting some money off that budget, trying to get the millage down."

Commissioners Chairman Wayne Nothstein, in a telephone interview later in the day, expanded on Gerhard's statement.

"It's not going to be layoffs," said Nothstein. "We're looking at the possibility of job elimination."

Layoffs imply the possibility of being called back to work. Nothstein did not say where the cuts would be.

However, commissioners at a Nov. 29 public meeting discussed eliminating the county's solid waste department, which employs three full-time and three part-time workers, as a way of paring the tax increase. That department, meant to be self-sustaining, has been running a deficit for the past three years. This year, the red ink rose to the $100,000 level.

At the Nov. 29 meeting, commissioners, with minority Commissioner William O'Gurek opposing, approved the proposed 2013 budget, which would levy a 4-mill tax increase and bring the total rate to 10.893 mills. Each mill generates about $1.5 million, said Controller Bob Crampsie.

The additional revenue would close a $6 million gap in next year's spending plan. It would be the first tax increase since 2002.

Commissioners expect to adopt a final budget when they meet publicly at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 20.

"No one in the county wants to pay higher taxes. We're going to be working very, very hard over the next few weeks, trying to get that down, and trying to make it as painless as possible," Gerhard said.

"This is about three county commissioners working together for the best interests of the county. I think you've got to let the political thing out of it. Nothing against Commissioner O'Gurek. He's a very intelligent commissioner. But I don't think we'd be in this position if they would have addressed it a few years ago," Gerhard said. "We're not the bad guys. I think the public has to know that."

Gerhard, who blamed the need to increase the tax on previous boards, said he would like to "see the three of us vote yes on the adopted budget."

In response, O'Gurek said he thinks "Commissioner Gerhard's statement is a cheap shot at myself and Commissioner (Charles) Getz. In eight years, we never raised taxes; we gave the employees raises adding up to 26 percent during that time; we eliminated an unfair occupational tax against working men and women; and we spent millions of dollars in improvements, including taking on expenses associated with a third judge. We made some very difficult decisions to keep those taxes low, like selling a county home that was costing the taxpayers $8,200 a day.

"And the $11 million we received from selling the (county nursing home at Weatherwood) was used to support those no-tax-increase budgets. Yes, we adopted budgets with deficits, but we also had sufficient revenue on hand to offset those deficits. And when the administrations changed hands this past January, the county had a $7.4-million balance in the general fund," he said.

"Keep this in mind too. When commissioners Nothstein and Gerhard adopted an amended budget for 2012, it had in it a $4-million deficit (receipts of $16,791,132 and expenses of $21,063,430). So if you subscribe to Commissioner Gerhard's thinking that instead of adopting a budget that has a deficit, you should raise taxes, then the obvious question is why didn't they raise the taxes this year?

"Let's look at that. If one mill was added in 2012, the county would have an additional $1.5-million now. And that increase would have been 14.5 percent, far lower than the 58 percent increase that is in their tentative budget. And if we added one mill now, instead of four, which would have amounted to a 12.6 percent increase, we would have $4.5-million extra in the general fund, which would go a long way in getting us close to cutting a $6-million deficit. Overall, the tax increase would have been about one-half of what is being proposed," O'Gurek said.

"That having been said, I am still committed to offering input to the majority commissioners on how they can adopt a 2013 budget that lessens the burden on taxpayers then what is proposed," he said.

Nothstein has already asked departments to study how they could pare their budgets.

Commissioners have also decided to cut back on employee seminars. Last year, it cost the county $64,500 to send employees to seminars. Of that, $46,915 came out of the general fund.

If the budget is adopted as stands, Gerhard said at the Nov. 29 meeting, the owner of a $200,000 home with an assessed value of $100,000 would pay an additional $400 in county property tax next year.

At that meeting, commissioners discussed a number of possible ways to pare the budget, including eliminating the county's costly solid waste program.

A confluence of lower revenues and higher costs is driving the increase. Employee health benefits are expected to cost 20 percent more next year; the anticipated retirement fund contribution is expected to double, from $663,000 to nearly $1.2 million, according to a report previously published in the TIMES NEWS.

While expenditures are increasing, income is falling. Revenue from the taxes is only $45,000 higher than last year, according to the report. State and federal government funding for mandated departments, the conservation district; budgets for other mandated programs, such as Children and Youth and Area Agency on Aging, are escalating; and grants that used to help close financial gaps in departments' budgets are being slashed or eliminated.

The preliminary budget is now available for public review at the commissioners' office in the county courthouse annex in Jim Thorpe between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, through Dec. 19.

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