County commissioners will raise taxes to cover capital projects and other rising costs
Lebanon’s county commissioners on Thursday gave tentative approval to a $123.9 million budget, which would raise taxes by 0.6 thousandths.
This represents an increase from 3.2925 mills to 3.8925 mills for fiscal year 2022. This means a homeowner will pay next year approximately $3.89 in property tax for every $1,000 of assessed value his house.
It was noted that the average assessed value of homes in all of Lebanon County is $168,950, which would increase most homeowners’ tax bill by $101.37, or $8.40 per month.
County Clerk/Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said General Fund spending increased 6.63% to more than $54 million in 2022.
“The budget, at $123 million, is a big increase from last year’s $86 million,” Wolgemuth said. “This, however, is almost a unique anomaly year due to the construction of the DES building, the 911 center, this capital being included in this budget.
“But, of course, once the construction is complete and those funds are spent and transferred to the budget, we go back to what I would consider a normal number or not with this (kind of) spike in capital.
The 18% increase in the budget is attributed to a number of factors, including the construction of the new 911 center, significant cost increases (particularly in the areas of public safety at the county jail and the Department of Public emergency), increased employee healthcare costs and salaries, and the $3 million ongoing expense associated with the county’s contract with PrimeCare Medical of Harrisburg, which was launched in 2019, to provide health at the county jail.
Read more: Commissioners expect 2022 budget to lead to tax rate hike, first since 2016
“Since 2019, the county has faced a growing deficit, reaching $6.5 million in anticipation of 2022,” Wolgemuth wrote in a budget summary that was provided to members of the press. “Besides property tax revenue and the sale of a county-owned parcel of land, other sources of revenue are seeing little growth and even some reductions, creating a net less revenue forecast for 2022 compared to 2021.”
Wolgemuth added that the county has used available cash over the past three years to balance the county’s budget, which was $86.3 million in 2021.
Of the county’s proposed $123.9 million budget, a significant portion will be spent on capital projects, the largest of which will be the construction of a new facility for the Department of Emergency Services that will include a new 911 center, administrative offices, training space and an operations building to house county hazardous materials, equipment and supply storage at a cost of $40.9 million.
Read more: Commissioners vote to acquire 10 acres in North Cornwall for 911 Center
Read more: County commissioners discuss plans for $36m 911 center in North Cornwall
In addition, a new radio system for the 911 center will be installed at a cost of $19.8 million, bringing the total cost of the Department of Emergency Services project to $60.7 million. The county will also spend an additional $2.25 million to purchase and renovate the city portion of the Lebanon County/City Municipal Building, with settlement expected in 2022.
The total project cost of $60.7 million will be reduced by $18.4 million with funds allocated to the county of Lebanon through the American Rescue Plan Act, which was launched by the federal government earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The rest of the funds will be raised through a general bond, which was also approved at the meeting, at an interest rate of 2.415% over the next 25 years.
In the budget summary prepared, it was noted that county employees will receive between 2 and 4 percent in raises, with most averaging around 3 percent. Although the county is still negotiating with union representatives from the AFSCME over salaries for county corrections officers and corporals at the county jail, Wolgemuth does not expect the final agreement to have a big impact on the proposed budget.
Lebanon County, like many of its counterparts throughout the Commonwealth, is facing labor shortages in many of its departments, including essential services at the county jail, 911 center and center Renova. Of Lebanon’s 700 county government positions, more than 100 vacancies currently exist, with the majority occurring at the county jail.
Many current jail employees are working overtime, which puts additional pressure on county coffers, Wolgemuth added.
“Employee recruitment and retention are at an all-time low,” Wolgemuth wrote in the budget summary. “To try to stem the problem, the commissioners have initiated measures aimed at attracting candidates and are considering others in the very short term.”
To address staffing shortages, the county can use ARPA funds, and it conducted a salary survey in 2021 to gauge where Lebanon County stands compared to similarly sized counties. Based on the survey results, Wolgemuth said “certain adjustments will be made so that the county is in a better position to compete and retain employees in this unusual market.”
Rising health care costs also have an impact on the budget. Wolgemuth said employee health insurance premiums for the county increased 9.2% for 2022, an increase of $1.1 million.
Like many employers, use of medical services rebounded from 2020, a time when many people delayed or avoided elective and preventative care due to COVID-19. That, and inflation in health care costs, have resulted in significantly higher premiums, the news briefing noted.
The final major item that will negatively impact the 2022 budget is county debt service, which has steadily increased since the contract with PrimeCare began in 2019. These expenditures, plus the capital construction project, will increase the county debt of $1.4 million, or 38.6 percent.
Wolgemuth said a silver lining in the debt service is that in the coming years it will be reduced by just over $1 million in 2023 due to the repayment of some of the debt to existing long-term, which will reduce this item close to previous levels, and even lower, by 2024.
Commissioner’s Chair Robert Phillips, responding to a comment on the budget, said: “There is no joy in Mudville.” He noted that one of the main objectives of the budget was to improve public safety.
“The county has been very focused on keeping our citizens safe and an investment like this is the way we need to do that,” Phillips said. “When they call an ambulance, the police or the fire department, they want the best response available, and that’s what it’s supposed to give them. For all our citizens, it is a good investment for the future and, at this stage, it is inevitable.
Commissioner William Ames said the budget was a balance between meeting public safety requirements while providing foresight and showing gratitude to his employees.
“Providing public safety services to 140,000 people (at this price) is a real bargain,” Ames said. “No one, especially me, takes pride or pleasure in raising taxes on people who work hard to provide housing for their families and have to pay taxes on their property. … People need to know that we had to make this change in our emergency services and I feel very comfortable voting for this and doing our best as county commissioners responsible for the county.
Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz addressed rising health care costs for county employees and took the opportunity to encourage people to get their COVID-19 shot if they haven’t already. , adding that the pandemic is one of the main culprits for the escalating cost of health care .
The proposed budget will be available for the next 20 days for public review and comment. A formal vote will take place at a special meeting of commissioners to adopt it on December 23.
In other county matters, the commissioners:
- Hiring of Sean Drasher of Palmyra as the new Chief Election/Voter Registration Clerk at an annual salary of $55,000. Drasher’s first day of work is Monday, December 13.
- Approved a grant from United States Homeland Security in the amount of $1.21 million.
- Heard a presentation from Lori Books of the North Lebanon Township, who thanked the Commissioners for previously approving a $25,000 grant from Marcellus Shale for a new outdoor pavilion and adjoining additional building in a township park .
- Passed a resolution appointing Jon Fitzkee, Senior Transportation Planner, as a signatory on behalf of the county for the execution of documents, notices, and contracts and the management of projects through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Reimbursement Agreement System .
- Agreed to reappoint Kimberly Miller, Marc Hess and Sue Werner to the Department of Children and Youth Services Advisory Board, and Jonathan Johnson, the Reverend Alan Smith and Bonnie Pietruch to the County Department of Mental Health Advisory Board/ Developmental Disability/Early Intervention (MH/ID/EI) Services. In addition, Roberta Santiago has been appointed as a member of the MH/ID/EI Advisory Council.
- Voted unanimously to accept the Treasurer’s report.
- Approved several personnel transactions and county employee attendance at mandated and non-commissioned seminars.
- Moved to executive session after the end of the public session to discuss a personnel matter.
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