Venango commissioners approve budget;
taxes to rise sharply
The Derrick, 12/20/01 By LISA THOMPSON
special thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted
PHOTO BY JERRY SOWDEN Commissioner Bob Murray makes a point during Wednesday's meeting.
to stave off service cuts and layoffs, Venango County commissioners reluctantly
adopted a $7.1 million budget Wednesday that calls for a more than 30 percent
1.37 mill increase will raise the real estate tax rate from 3.75 to 5.12 mills
and generate an additional $1.8 million to help balance the county budget. The
average taxpayer's bill will increase by about $55, Commissioner Bob Murray has
commissioners hope the tax hike will help cover an anticipated revenue shortfall
of as much as $490,000 this year, increased expenses next year, and help them
avoid a similar revenue shortfall at the end of next year.
cuts would not have resolved the problem, they said.
looking at the budget issues before us, one must first realize that our
projected 2001 deficit is caused not by excess spending but by insufficient
revenue. We will actually under spend the 2001 budget by nearly $400,000.
Revenues, however, are now projected to come in more than half a million dollars
short of budgeted projections. Revenues are comprised of taxes, departmental
charges, intergovernmental transfers and investment income. Each and every one
of those elements is now projected to be short," Murray said in an address
delivered after the budget adoption vote.
argument has been advanced that county government is just like a household in
that when expenses exceed income, spending must be cut. I agree. That is what
we've been doing for six years. Venango County government is like a household in
which one spouse has lost a job and the other has not had a raise in six years.
And just like a household, that situation cannot be sustained
indefinitely," he said.
and Commissioners Deb Lutz and Larry Horn each expressed regret about the vote
but said that the only alternative would be to cut jobs and services in the
areas that deliver services to county residents such as the courts, human
services, 911 and voter registration. Murray noted that while he has been in
office the commissioners have overcome a number of "significant financial
issues" with no real estate tax increase.
termed this experience "gut wrenching and heartbreaking."
know that a tax increase will be a burden on every taxpayer, and sadly, it will
be more than some can bear," he said.
brings to a conclusion one of my most personally difficult times as a
commissioner," he said.
bottom line is that expense reductions that would result in a no tax increase
budget are not possible without significant corresponding reductions in
personnel and services," he said.
noted that counties, including Mercer, Crawford and Erie, are all facing tax
increases this year.
is in the same boat. It is not easy, but it has to be done," he said.
assured taxpayers that commissioners would continue to "work as hard as we
can to monitor the budget."
caused that shortfall remains under investigation. The commissioners and
financial director Tammy Varsek have said a number of unique circumstances in
this first post-reassessment tax year combined this year to make an accurate
revenue projection difficult.
of the drop in collections is due to the fact that the tax base dropped about
$14 million from the time that base was certified in November and February when
tax bills went out. That drop would account for about $50,000 to $60,000 in tax
revenue, Murray said.
the source of the remaining shortfall is less clear. The commissioners say they
expected growth in the tax base during the year that did not occur. In addition,
they believed at the time they adopted the budget last year that the assessment
office would institute interim pro rata tax billing for property improvements
completed between tax billings.
project fell behind schedule and did not occur as expected. Now under way, it
should generate revenue for next year.
has noted that the revenue problem did not surface overnight. She said she
issued a memo over the summer once signs began to surface that there would
likely be a problem. But Murray noted the overall picture could not be discerned
until the year's end.
two said that it now appears that tax revenues will fall somewhere between
$300,000 to $490,000 short of projected collections.
$300,000 figure is based on monthly expense and revenue reports compiled so far
this year. The second number is based on information on the actual state of each
department's budget gleaned in meetings with row officers and department heads.
said they set the 2002 tax rate based on the deficit "worst case
scenario." Varsek noted that although the 1.37 mill increase should
generate about $1.8 million, the county traditionally only collects about 86 or
87 percent of the amount of tax billed during the tax year.
outlined the expenses pressuring the 2002 budget.
$500,000 of the money generated by the tax hike will go to cover the anticipated
deficit, he said. An additional $500,000 will be spent on budgeted raises and a
handful of new positions.
said most county workers, including salaried, union and non-union hourly
employees, will receive raises of 3.5 percent. The commissioners weighed a wage
freeze but felt it was important to continue their ongoing effort to bring
county wages in line with those of the local market and other sixth class
dealing with what he referred to as a "lean" workforce, Murray said it
is important the workers be "properly rewarded and compensated for the
services they do deliver."
addition to raises, the county expects to hire a few new people next year,
mainly in the public defender's office, Murray said. As a part of the ongoing
negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union, the county has agreed to
hire a full-time chief and two full-time assistant public defenders next year,
as well as add a prisoner advocate and paralegal clerk to the office staff.
full-time attorneys, a paralegal investigator and an administrative assistant
now staff the office.
changes made it necessary to budget pay raises for the assistant district
attorneys as well, Murray said. Traditionally, those attorneys have earned more
than the public defenders, but with changes made in the office this year, the
assistant district attorneys were making less than the assistant public
defender. To even things out between the two offices next year, Murray said each
office would pay assistant attorneys between $36,500 and $38,500.
other personnel matters the commissioners found it necessary to adjust a few
other positions to more accurately reflect the skills and education required for
the jobs. For example, in one such case, three second deputy row officer
positions were bumped up a pay grade, Murray said. Adjustments also were made to
a number of positions in the human resource office and for the jail warden.
county also expects to incur additional expenses the commissioners have no
control over, such as a ballooning court caseload.
the perception is that the commissioners are able to control all of county
government, it just isn't true," he said.
don't have control of the courts (workload) or the prison population. We have a
number of state mandates we do have to fulfill, the most expensive of which is
the placement of delinquent and dependent children," he said.
to changes in federal policy, the county now will have to help support the
domestic relations office. That change accounted for a swing of 163 percent, he
court supervision services budget increased by 82 percent, he noted. Staff and
resources have been increased dramatically in that department over the last
with many other local governments, the county this year also had to contend with
rising employee benefits and insurance costs. After much negotiation, the county
still faced a 19 percent increase, the commissioners noted.
tax hike approved Wednesday came as no surprise. Reports surfaced last month
that the county was facing a shortfall of close to $750,000 this year and $2
million next year.
Nov. 19, the commissioners circulated a memo to the row officers and department
heads warning them of an impending shortfall that could reach $750,000 by the
end of the year. It asked them to endorse a tax hike in writing or else silently
endorse budget and personnel cuts.
a follow-up interview, the commissioners, Varsek and Chief Clerk Denise Jones
outlined the causes of the budget crisis. They noted that a handful of
departments had experienced significant budget shortfalls due to things such as
budgeting errors, invoicing errors, changes in federal reimbursement policies
and skyrocketing utility bills.
those items, which total about $300,000, likely would have been covered by
contingencies built into the 2001 budget.
main factor catapulting the budget into the red was a tax revenue shortfall,