Commissioners predict no tax increase

2017 county budget beginning to take shape

LOCK HAVEN — The Clinton County commissioners were short on numbers Monday, but expressed confidence they will be able to put the 2017 version of the county budget to bed without the need for a real estate tax increase.

Issues still pending include a proposed bond that’s likely to increase the county’s debt to improve systems at the local prison and for other capital projects.

Also pending are union negotiations next year between the county and AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The  commissioners will be hiring a labor attorney for the 2017 negotiations. The firm of Campbell, Durrant, Beatty, Palombo and Miller will provide legal representation to the county about labor and personnel matters, and the labor attorney fee for services will be on a sliding scale, depending on the duties.

As for the prison project, the commissioners have agreed to expand duties for an architectural and engineering firm to help with renovations at the Clinton County Correctional Facility, estimated to cost $3.9 million.

EADS Engineers’ scope of duties is expected to expand this Thursday, after the commissioners and the county prison board look at plans to remove walls between cell blocks, end a contract for the  prison to provide laundry service to Susque-View, and add space for barber, dentist and X-ray equipment.

There are also tentative plans for lighting and other improvements to the Clinton County Courthouse’s double domes.

The Design Development Phase Services and Construction Document Phase Services (final design) include a lump sum fee of $171,500, an increase of around $50,000.

Commissioners Pete Smeltz and Jeff Snyder both acknowledged the burden of capital improvements to county-owned structures in recent years, but said the board was playing “catch-up” to meet the need for maintenance and improvements.

Last year, the commissioners approved a budget in the neighborhood of $33.4 million, expressing the need to raise the property taxes to generate an additional $1.1 million to balance spending.

The added tax revenue from the increased six-tenths of a mill was to allow the commissioners to maintain a $2 million reserve; increase pension contributions, employee wages and health care benefits; and spend more on children and youth and the prison, the commissioners said.

With the average median property in this county valued at $125,000, the average property owner saw a tax hike of $75 a year, or just over $6 more per month.

The total tax bill on that same property owner in 2017 would be $750 with no increase.

The last county property tax hike prior to 2016 came in 2013.

The board will meet with Chief Clerk Jann Myers early this week to go over figures, and the commissioners are expected to engage financial consultant Ed Zack of Susquehanna Group Advisors to discuss personnel additions and capital improvements  that might be included in the preliminary budget.

There is no word about whether the county will be able to maintain a fund balance of $2 million going into 2017, or the increased contribution to the pension fund. (Last  year’s contribution was  increased to $800,000.)

Last year’s budget vote came amid continuing uncertainty caused by a lengthy, ongoing state budget impasse between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled Legislature. The impasse went beyond 150 days and caused a statewide crisis as county and other  governments struggled to fill the  gap in state-level services like Children and Youth and Meals on Wheels.

At a recent County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) conference, members worried about how the 2016-17 state budget shortfall might impact counties, even before the next fiscal year’s discussions have begun.

Snyder noted that when it comes to Children and Youth, the state senators and Assemblymen have asked county governments to fill the gap to the tune of $249,000, while adding in the financial and legal mandates in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal.

In the meantime, the state government shorted counties $22,000 each, seemingly capriciously, in promised coverage of judicial salaries.

Snyder said it’s time that the financial pain of the General Assembly be felt by the  General Assembly itself, instead of passing it on to counties through local shortfalls and broken promises.

Smeltz, who serves on CCAP’s Taxation and Assessment Committee, said the organization is still focusing on proposals to expand county governments’ budget options with varied methods of finding revenue, including sales and income taxes to augment real estate taxes.

Snyder said the prison offers continued opportunities to decrease its institutional and  financial burden locally, and pointed to Warden John Rowley’s efforts to fill empty beds and cut staffing costs.