CLEARFIELD – The Clearfield County Commissioners unanimously approved the 2017 preliminary budget with a 3.5-mill tax increase at Tuesday’s workshop meeting.
The proposed budget shows increases in the county’s expenses and declines in its revenue sources. Its real estate tax revenue has also remained stagnant.
Despite the commissioners’ efforts to cut departmental expenses, the aforementioned factors have still resulted in a proposed tax increase from 19.5 to 23 mills.
Based upon the commissioners’ calculations, a homeowner with a home valued at $100,000 will see a tax increase of approximately $87.50, said Commissioner John A. Sobel, chair.
“This was a very difficult budget,” he said. Commissioner Mark B. McCracken attributed the budget difficulties to a significant decline in Marcellus Shale Act 13 funds with the county’s allocation now being less than $500,000.
The county, he said, received $1,947,624 in Act 13 funds in 2014 and its allocation has declined by $1.45 million since then. He added they aren’t expecting it to go back up, as there isn’t any drilling activity.
He also mentioned that in 2017, the county will not be receiving a health insurance refund for the prior year. Due to high claims in 2016, he said one of the county’s major expenses this coming year will be a 14 percent increase in its health insurance.
Some good news, McCracken said, is that trends show there’s typically an abnormal year of high claims every eight to 10 years. He said if the county’s claims go back down, it will have a health insurance refund again.
During the budget discussion, Sobel shared a letter recently received from a senior citizen from Luthersburg who pleaded for the commissioners to reconsider increasing the tax burden on those with fixed incomes after reading about it being likely in the local newspaper.
“We hear you but we don’t have any immediate answers. It is mandated by law that county commissioners pass a balanced budget by Dec. 31. We are duty-bound to meet our obligation, and we worked hard to cut it as tightly as we reasonably could.”
According to the commissioners, department heads and elected officials were requested to voluntarily cut operational costs by 5 percent and some did and some did not. Departments weren’t awarded any new general fund staff positions.
In addition, pay raises were forgone for the county’s elected officials, with exception to the district attorney and two judges. Salaries for those officials are not set by the commissioners, but by the commonwealth.
“We have taken just about everything into account to trim our budget while still being able to meet our obligations,” Sobel said.
Commissioner Tony Scotto called attention to the fact that the county has been able to sustain a budget without a tax increase in past years because its fund balance was significantly higher.
Scotto said in January of 2011, the county’s fund balance was $6,784,814 and now it is $4,098,373, most of which is restricted for specific entities.
“Realistically, we only have $211,000 in unassigned fund balance,” Scotto said. “We’ve hit the point where we have to make tough decisions … we had no option other than to go for an increase in taxes.”
According to Sobel, it’s not “total gloom and doom,” as the county’s debt service will fall off in future years and there’s hopes of better market conditions for its retirement investments.
Sobel said if the county’s budget situation would improve, the commissioners could always reduce taxes. Realistically, he did note that expenses increase, so there wouldn’t be any guarantees.
“We want to assure our taxpayers that it’s not the commissioners’ philosophy that once a charge is imposed or once a tax is imposed, it will be there forever,” he said.
In contrast, Sobel said if the county’s budget struggle persists, the commissioners will not hesitate to cut staff and “non-essential” funds to help other agencies who depend on county funds.
McCracken said when the commissioners reduced taxes in the 2011 budget they expected taxes would “come back around.” “We actually sustained our budget longer than we all thought was possible with the Act 13 funds,” he said.
As proposed, the general fund budget calls for $20,098,596 in revenues and expenses. The total budget calls for $30,212,804 in revenues and $30,252,113 in expenditures.
The county’s 2017 preliminary budget will go on display for 20 days until finalized Dec. 27. County taxpayers are encouraged to view the budget on the Clearfield County Government Web site.