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November 30, 2012

Cambria budget not hiking taxes

EBENSBURG — The Cambria County commissioners unveiled Friday what they called a realistic general fund budget for 2013 of $56.7 million, up only $500,000 from the revised budget they adopted in February.

To keep property taxes from rising while paying for union raises that will cost $750,000 next year, the commissioners said wages of nonunion and management employees will be frozen.

“That was the only way we could pay for the wage increases. The true costs with increased retirement and related costs will be over $1 million,” Commissioner Mark Wissinger said.

At the same time, most departments and agencies were asked to trim about 4.75 percent in many areas in their proposed budgetary requests to keep operating costs down, President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said.

“They did a fantastic job,” he said, recalling that department heads were asked to work though a zero-based budgeting process for the first time in developing budget requests.

When asked whether the 4.75 percent trimming could result in layoffs, Wissinger said, “Possibly.”

But Lengenfelder suggested that would depend on expenses during coming months.

The  county will have to “be more aggressive in tracking what people do and how they do it” to keep within the proposed budget, Lengenfelder said.

Commissioner Thomas Chernisky said it will be a challenge to live within the budget.

The proposed budget wasn’t ready for public display until nearly 3 p.m. Friday as William Stasko, the finance director, crunched numbers with the commissioners and with Controller Ed Cernic Jr. and Kris Segear, the controller’s first deputy.

The commissioners will hold a special meeting Dec. 21 to adopt the budget and re-enact the current 29.5-mill property tax levy – 23.5 mills for general fund, 4 for debt service, 1 for the community college, and one-half mill each for the county public library system and the county’s Duman Lake Park.

Overall, the total proposed budget is $158.9 million – about the same as this year. That includes budget lines for agencies, authorities and others that mostly reflect federal/state reimbursements over which the county has no control on how to spend, Lengenfelder said.

Unlike past years, when the budget document was 2 inches thick and contained much detail, this year’s proposed budget is about one-half inch thick.

The commissioners don’t want to “micromanage the departments, telling them (for example) they can spend only $30 on paper or $35 on something else,” Lengenfelder said.

Cambria again is including a $300,000 contingency fund. It was reported that while the county has the same amount this year, only about 10 percent was spent for true contingencies, with the balance going for “overages” in line budgets.

The commissioners previously had expressed concern about the need for a new courthouse roof and a new or updated heating/cooling system for the county prison. But that projected cost of millions is not reflected in the new budget.

The county is allocating $100,000 for roofing work in 2013. The commissioners had allocated $25,000 in fall for starting an analysis on the roof problems and some initial repairs, it was reported.

A company that is analyzing the geothermal system at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena will be looking at options for the prison.

“It’s too early to give numbers yet for that system,” Lengenfelder said.

Wissinger pointed out that even though the county got out of the nursing home business in 2010 when it sold Laurel Crest, ongoing legacy costs will be $1.8 million in 2013.

The county’s new day reporting center – a program aimed at preventing nonviolent offenders from committing more crime – has a $1 million budget in 2013.

County officials and others had hoped that the program would free up beds in the county prison that could be rented to other counties and to the federal government for immigration prisoners. But that additional revenue has not materialized, Wissinger said.

Lengenfelder added, “We knew it would be a money loser. We will need to look at it hard on its ability to achieve what the president judge wanted to achieve.”

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