The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 19, 2013

Cambria leaders pass budget

Controller critical of plan

Kathy Mellott
kmellott@tribdem.com

EBENSBURG — In a split vote Thursday, the Cambria County commissioners passed the 2014 budget that was described by some as helping put the county on a more secure financial track.

But longtime county Controller Edward Cernic Jr. said he has concerns about a number of areas in the $60.1 million spending plan.

Cernic, controller for the past decade, cited estimates of projected tax revenue and insufficient funds targeted for debt service as glaring problems.

President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder defended the budget.

“The budget is $1.7 million less than the 2013 budget, and for the third year, there will be no tax increase,” said Lengenfelder.

It passed in a 2-1 vote with Lengenfelder and Mark Wissinger in favor while minority Commissioner Thomas Chernisky was opposed.

As promised in the spring, the budget does reduce the county contribution to Pennsylvania Highlands Community College by $150,000, a move Chernisky said he could not support.

“I would have voted for the budget if we hadn’t taken anything from Penn Highlands,” he said.

This year, the county gave the college about $1.2 million, and Cambria remains the only county to provide direct financial support,  despite Penn Highlands’ expansion into a number of other counties, Lengenfelder said.

The college is a significant generator for the county economy because it trains thousands of people for the workforce, Chernisky said.

Remaining intact are full allocations to the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority along with the newly formed economic development authority and a number of other authorities.

Following a suggestion by Cernic, the budget also sets aside $250,000 in a newly formed budgetary reserve fund.

Chief clerk Steve Ettien said savings were realized by a number of steps, including reduction of the number of county- owned vehicles by one-fourth to about 150, and new contracts for the multitude of copiers also helped.

Through attrition, a number of county jobs have been eliminated over the past couple of years. The workforce now numbers about 820, nearly 200 fewer than the nearly 1,000 previously employed, Ettien said.

Much of the credit for a reduction in the budget over the current year is owed to the department heads, elected officials and county employees, Lengenfelder and Wissinger said.

 “As for the financial state of the county, I wouldn’t say we’re healthy, but we’re getting better,” Ettien said.

Cernic disagreed, citing concerns over a budget that is counting on 98 percent payment of real estate taxes, a figure historically at 92 or 93 percent.

The difference could amount to about $1.5 million, he said.

Lengenfelder said any shortfall will be covered by payment of delinquent taxes, something Cernic said is already counted in the budget.

The controller is also concerned that sufficient funds are not set aside for 2014 payments of $19 million in debt refinanced over the next 15 years.

Also aired by Cernic were concerns about $6 million owed to other county agencies and $3 million due to vendors.

Lengenfelder said the 2014 budget allows for money to cover those debts, a statement supported by William Stasko, the county’s director of finance.

Cernic retorted that time will tell.

“The commissioner (Lengenfelder) and I have a difference of opinion on this, and I guess we’ll know at the end of 2014,” he said. “But I’ve had a pretty good batting average over the past couple years.”

In defining the property tax millage rates needed to help fund the 2014 budget, the commissioners adopted a resolution that shifts part of the full 1 mill long designated for Penn Highlands to the county’s debt service fund.

The amount will be $150,000, county solicitor Thomas Leiden said.



Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.