A 58% tax hike?
Carbon County taxpayers may see a 58 percent increase in their county real estate taxes in 2013.
This is due to a $6 million deficit the county is currently facing.
During the commissioners' meeting on Thursday, the board voted 2-1 to accept the proposed 2013 spending plan, which calls for a 4-mill tax hike, making the millage 10.893. This is the first time since 2002 the county has raised taxes
If the spending plan is passed on Dec. 20, with no changes, Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard said it would mean that a county resident who owns a $200,000 home with an assessed value of $100,000, will be required to pay an additional $400 in county real estate taxes in 2013.
Commissioner William O'Gurek cast the sole "no" vote because he has some major concerns that he feels needs to be addressed in the coming weeks.
"A 58 percent tax increase is not something the taxpayers can afford," O'Gurek said, noting that he feels the county should seriously look at closing the Department of Solid Waste, which oversees the blue bin recycling program in the county; as well as the K-9 shelter and Farmland Preservation program.
"I think Solid Waste comes down to whose responsibility is it (to maintain the operating costs) and I don't think it's the county's."
Carbon County has been funneling money into the cash-strapped Solid Waste department over the last year and is expecting to spend over $100,000 in the formerly self-sustaining program this year alone.
He pointed out that there are still a number of line items in the proposed budget that could and should be reduced; and said he welcomes discussions with his colleagues over the next few weeks.
Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, chairman, agreed with O'Gurek's thoughts on the Solid Waste program, saying that the county will take a hard look at what needs to be done, whether that means continuing or shutting down the program; but, he added, that he is not in favor of closing the Farmland Preservation program.
Gerhard said that he "agrees 100 percent" with O'Gurek's thought to close the Solid Waste department.
"It's not mandatory. About half the county benefits so I think this one is a no brainer," Gerhard said. "This is costing us money and that is why we're talking about closing the Solid Waste department. We're not going to make some people happy, but there are some very difficult decisions that have to be made here."
Gerhard also reminded residents that this budget is still only a proposed budget and has not been finalized.
"We have a lot of work to do," he said, noting that this deficit didn't happen over the last year, but has been building since 2007.
Gerhard added that the current administration had cut over $800,000 from the 2012 budget.
Nothstein said that the county is "facing some very difficult times."
"We all need to work together to make this budget happen," he said, adding that he hopes that over the next two weeks, the commissioners, with the help of all departments, will be able to shave off at least a half-mill, or $750,000 in the budget.
He pointed out that there are a number of line items that have ballooned over the last few years, as well as lower revenue coming in, that has contributed to the deficit.
In 2013, the county will face a 20 percent increase in employee health care costs; revenue from the taxes is only $45,000 higher than last year; expenses are going up; the annual required contribution to the retirement fund is expected to double from $663,000 to nearly $1.2 million; state and federal governments have significantly cut funding for mandated departments within the county, such as 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.
"Those are the things that are really killing us and we have no control over it," Nothstein said, adding that the county is concerned about cutting some programs because of the future backlash it could have.
"The question is, where do you draw the line?"
Nothstein noted that in addition to asking all department heads and elected officials to look at their departments and see if there are any expenses that can be cut out of their operating budgets, the county will also be looking at personnel and possibly layoffs.
"We're looking at part-time and full-time," he said. "Will there be eliminations of jobs? I think that is definitely a very good possibility that we will be eliminating jobs. None of us like to see it. None of us like giving this (a 4-mill tax hike) to the taxpayers for Christmas. None of us like to lay anyone off for Christmas."
He pointed out that over the last few years, departments have already been weaning down the number of employees in each department.
"There are a lot of things we need to talk about," Nothstein said again. "We have a lot to deal with over the next several years. Even if we have a final adoption in a couple of weeks, it will not be an ending. It's going to continue. Things are not going to get any better for us."
O'Gurek agreed with Nothstein's thoughts, saying, "This is going to come down to what is essential to county government and what are we responsible for and what are things that people would like us to do. The days of wish lists are gone when you're facing the kind of deficit we're facing."
Gerhard also agreed, saying that the next few weeks are going to be very challenging for the board, but he is looking forward to working with his colleagues.
He thanked Jeff Weiss, the county's financial consultant, for all the work he has done to date, but added that there is a lot more that still needs to be done.
"None of us want to sit here and raise taxes," Gerhard said. "Believe me, the last couple of weeks have been hard, especially for me. I don't like when I can't fall asleep. I will assure everyone that I will do everything I can to try and keep the taxes down and make this as painless as we possibly can."
He added that the county will also crack down on seminars for employees.
Last year the county spent $64,500 on seminars; and out of that total, $46,915 came out of the general fund.
"We're definitely going to cut," Gerhard said, adding that seminars will only be approved if they are mandatory.
The county also made the statement that officials are prepared to tell the state that if something doesn't change in funding for the conservation district, the county will no longer continue to fund the program because it is not a mandated program or required by the county.
Currently, the county pays $203,000 for the state-operated program; while the state pays $80,000.
The board of commissioners will now begin tackling the job of going through the budget line item by line item to see where there is room to trim some of the costs before the final adoption of the budget occurs on Dec. 20.
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.