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As costs rise, commissioners hold the line on taxes

November 17, 2018

The Somerset County commissioners presented a no-new-taxes budget Friday that increases spending by about $4 million.

Next month the board will likely approve the $49.5 million financial plan. Last year’s budget was $45.4 million. The new budget uses a general fund carryover of $3 million to cover a deficit, county finance director Rebecca Canavan said.

“Every year we have a deficit,” she said. “2014 is the last year we increased taxes. We didn’t have to increase taxes due to commissioners monitoring invoices and offices being more conscious of their purchases.”

The property tax rate will remain at 13.36 mills. One mill generates $2.4 million in revenue.

Canavan said that several county departments found ways to cut their budgets for 2019.

“We can’t do the budget without the support of the departments,” she said. “They tell us what they need, and then it is the commissioners’ job to decide is that a need that they need.”

Judicial-related costs represent the largest part of the budget at 37.9 percent. Administration is second at 20.1 percent.

“Most of the judicial-related costs are mandated by the state and federal government,” Canavan said.

One place where costs continue to rise is in Children & Youth Services. The county shares the costs of those services 80-20 with the state. As costs continue to rise, however, the county’s 20 percent does as well.

Canavan said new requirements from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal and an increase in placements because of the opioid crisis have contributed to increased costs.

Two places where they were able to lower the budget were payments to the pension fund and general fund support for the Cambria Somerset Authority.

Earlier this year the board voted to use a new formula to determine pension contributions. To date the county has contributed $23.4 million to the pension fund. The pension contribution makes up 3.7 percent of the overall expenditures.

Support for the Cambria Somerset Authority fell from $331,160 in 2018 to $294,556 in 2019.

“Part of that is we refinanced our loan,” Commissioner John Vatavuk said.

Vatavuk said that when they were looking to refinance the debt service, they looked into bonds but were able to work with Henry Cook to get a better rate from Somerset Trust Co.

“We wanted to keep it local,” Vatavuk said.

Like many counties, Somerset County has a stagnant tax base, Vatavuk said.

“You look around the county, how many new homes are going up?” he said. “Now you are lucky to have one here and one there. and that is really a problem.”

Commissioner Pat Terlingo said the problem is not limited to Somerset County.

“In southwest Pennsylvania this is happening in every county,” he said. “We all have to deal with that.”

Terlingo said that working on his first county budget was a team effort.

“I am not a newcomer to budgets,” the former school superintendent said. “I think the scope from what I came from to this scope here is very different, but similar. I think it went very smooth.”

Terlingo said it was important to him not to raise taxes.

“That is the bottom line and that is what folks look at,” he said. “If you can maintain everything you maintained the year before and not raise taxes, that is the trick.”

Commissioner Gerald Walker said he was also pleased the board did not have to raise taxes.

“The budget went as smooth as possible this year,” he said. “It is always great when we don’t have to raise taxes.”

The commissioners plan to vote on the spending plan at the Dec. 11 meeting. It will be on display in their office and on the county’s website.

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