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Schuylkill OKs 1-mill tax increase

In a split vote Wednesday, Schuylkill County commissioners adopted a $61.6 million 2018 spending plan that increases the property tax by 1 mill, to 15.98 mills.

That means the owner of a property assessed for taxes at $31,595 will pay $504.88 in county property tax next year, an increase of $31.59 over this year, said county Finance Director Paul E. Buber.

The budget increases the general fund tax by an additional 0.55 of a mill, bringing it to 15.38, and the debt service tax by an additional 0.45 of a mill, bringing it to 0.60. The resulting 15.98-mill proposed levy is 1 mill more than the current 14.98-mill rate.

A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value, and generates about $1.1 million in revenue.

The spending plan anticipates $61,569,843 in expenditures but only $55,241,759 in revenues.

To make up the difference, the county is taking $6,328,084 from the general fund’s unassigned fund balance.

The fund is a financial cushion, typically containing enough money to pay two month’s worth of expenses. The drawdown leaves it with enough to pay one month’s bills.

The 2-1 budget vote had Commissioner Frank J. Staudenmeier and Chairman George F. Halcovage Jr. voting in favor, with minority Commissioner Gary J. Hess opposed.

After the public meeting Wednesday, Hess said he opposed the budget because he believes the county could do more to increase revenues and curb spending.

For example, the county could lease the radio frequencies it purchased about six years ago for the 911 center.

Further, he said, the county increased the rate by 2 mills in 2014, and by 1 mill last year.

“This is the third time in six years that we’ve increased taxes,” he said,” Hess said.

“When is enough, that you slow down? For 10 years before that, we didn’t raise taxes.”

He also questioned the need for an increase in light of the sale of the county nursing home, Rest Haven, for $11 million in 2015.

“They said that was going to generate up to $2 million in savings. We cut all that labor, the expense of the building and everything else,” he said.

Halcovage thanked the finance team that composed the budget, the row officers, managers and the employees.

“These are tough times. We’re trying to do what we can within our parameters from a budgetary standpoint,” he said.

Halcovage said the need for human services has increased, “but we still challenge everyone to please try to work within the parameters, because we still have a responsibility to the taxpayers.”

County Administrator Gary R. Bender, who praised the hard work of Buber and Financial Analyst Christopher Kerns.

Bender has cited health benefits, salaries and prison costs as the drivers of the general fund increase.

When commissioners approved a preliminary budget last month, health benefits were expected to increase by $825,000 to a total of $15,400,000.

Salaries were expected to rise 3 percent, or $585,000 through collective bargaining agreements, and prison costs were expected to increase by $534,463 to a total of $7.3 million.

The county increased the debt service because it plans to spend $5 million on capital projects.

Financing the loan over 10 years will add $610,000 to debt service payments, Buber said.

They include improvements at the former human services building at 410 N. Centre St., Pottsville. The county wants to move its mental health and drug and alcohol agencies and the office of District Judge James Reiley there.

The mental health and drug and alcohol agencies and district judge currently are in leased buildings. Moving them to the former human services building will save $100,000 a year, Bender has said.

Also in the plans are repairs to the courthouse’s 120-year-old slate roof, and an upgrade to the courthouse security system.