Indiana County’s real estate tax will remain the same under a 2014 general fund operating budget tentatively approved Wednesday by the county commissioners.
Commission Chairman Rodney Ruddock warned that the county faces some expected financial hurdles next year, including an unforeseen added expense from the Affordable Care Act. He pledged that the commissioners will remain committed to providing services and programs that the residents and taxpayers of the county require and deserve.
The proposed spending plan for the general fund lists an opening balance of more than $835,000. Total revenues are projected at $31,548,999 and total expenditures are expected to be $32,384,140. The county real estate tax will remain at 37.4 mills, with 7.4 mills of that total applied to debt service.
In 2012, Indiana County President Judge William Martin approved a 5 mill tax increase applied in 2013.
“This capped our ability to raise any additional general fund tax until the completion of our tax reassessment,” Ruddock said. “The dollars resulting from this one-time millage adjustment needed to be judiciously applied to our annual budget needs not only for the year 2013 but the out years as well.”
Ruddock said the county has a “reasonable” reserve built up through strong fiscal oversight.
“While the reserve fund looks solid, and it is, it has been created with the intent that for the next four years it will be significantly drawn down to offset what tax dollars would normally be applied. … Our challenge has been to balance a rather static tax base with normal incremental inflationary costs along with unforeseen financial bumps which create little room to maneuver,” he said.
An example of those bumps, Ruddock said, is that the Affordable Health Care Act will place an additional burden of about $400,000 on the county’s expense ledger.
And, he added, the county has been notified by the Department of Environmental Protection that the lake and dam at the county-owned Blue Spruce Park will require an extensive engineering study that may cost $240,000.
“These were both unforecasted costs which must be included in our budget profile,” Ruddock said.
County officials also have concerns over possible changes in the state reimbursement plan to counties for wireless services. That could trigger a shortfall in excess of $450,000 beginning July 1.
“We will be working closely with the legislative (team) to insure stability in this state funding process,” Ruddock said.
Ruddock said the team of commissioners has not backed away from its responsibility to undertake big projects, namely the building of a new county jail, upgrading of the county’s public safety radio network and a countywide property reassessment.
“Each of these projects has required substantial financial commitment by the county … and continues to have a significant impact upon our day-to-day operations and our year-to-year budgets,” Ruddock said. “Within the next two or three fiscal years we expect to have all of these significant projects behind us and have the associated revenue and expenses fully incorporated into the operating budgets.”
Ruddock also said the county has now fully satisfied its commitment to the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.
Some large expenses simply cannot be avoided by the county.
“It is critically important that we continue to serve and protect our courts,” Ruddock said. “This extends to all the agencies that are daily engaged in assuring the protection of our public environment. Forty-eight percent of our current budget is devoted to court, public safety and other related agencies.”
Ruddock said the county especially faces uncertainties in providing and paying for employee health care, pension reform and rising transportation costs.
“We need to remain focused on growing our tax base and improving our economic climate,” he said.
Commissioner David Frick said he was impressed with county department heads who came to budget planning meetings prepared to propose department budgets that matched those for this year.
He also complimented the staff in the commissioners’ office for their assistance in crafting a 2014 budget that holds the line on taxes.
Commissioner Patty Evanko said county residents are making cuts in their home budgets to get through challenging economic times.
“We (the commissioners) want to be as responsible as they are,” Evanko said. “We’re here to serve the people. … We take our jobs seriously.”
The tentative 2014 budget will be available for public inspection for 20 days. The commissioners will take final action on the spending plan at their Dec. 18 meeting.