Array of tactics to be used to trim county deficit

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Beth Johnston, director of fiscal services explains the budget during a Lycoming County Commissioners’ budget feedback meeting at the Jersey Shore Library Thursday.

The most recent 2018 Lycoming County budget shows a $5.2 million deficit, even with the inclusion of a .75 mill tax increase, or an increase of 13 percent over the current rate.

To balance the budget without dipping into the fund balance, or backup funds, the commissioners made a proposal at the final budget hearing Thursday, held at the Jersey Shore Area Library. They suggested eliminating the deficit by:

• Implementing the .75 mill tax increase, which will raise the county real estate tax by $75 on properties assessed at $100,000;

• Eliminating or reorganizing county positions through attrition for a potential savings of about $1.2 million;

• Collecting gas royalties in the amount of $1.8 million;

• Reducing the county’s contribution to the retirement fund by $250,000;

• And moving $1.9 million of impact fee revenue into the general fund budget.

“The fund balance tells us what kind of money we have available,” said Commissioner Jack McKernan. “We’re working between the budget and the fund balance, and … in the year 2020, we’ll have a deficit of $1.7 million.”

“Every year we have a deficit, it eats up a little bit of that fund balance,” McKernan explained. “Slowly, over time, it’s eroded away, which means we have to be that much more careful in trying to get this budget closer to balanced.”

McKernan said that reducing the county’s workforce by the 20 positions proposed in the plan to eliminate the deficit is “a big if.” He added the county has already received the gas royalty payment and is waiting on approval from its solicitor before adding it into the budget.

Reducing the county’s retirement fund contribution and taking from the impact fee revenue are two habits McKernan said the county should not get into, but taking action this year may be worth it to avoid deficit spending.

“We don’t want to get into a habit of doing that, but we’re trying to be fair to the county taxpayers,” he said. “We can do it in trying to get this down to a zero-loss and, at the same time, trying to keep funds in our fund balance.”

“This is a three-way negotiation,” Commissioner Rick Mirabito added. “This document is a really important move because it’s the first time that we’ve actually had a balanced budget without relying on the fund balance.”

The commissioners also are planning to assess the county’s properties to find a profitable solution, are working on a contingency plan for the White Deer Golf Complex and intend to participate in a state program that will assess the county to find ways for it to better spend or save its money.

William Keller, of Williamsport, wrote a list of further suggestions for the commissioners and emphasized that the county needs “to learn to do less with more.” Keller said he is a senior on a fixed income and, though it’s only the second county property tax increase in 12 years, combined with school and municipal taxes, it is not doable.

“It’s nonsense,” he said. “You gotta do something else.”

Geraldine Snook, a senior and business owner from Nippenose Township, agreed.

“The money’s not out there. The people don’t have it,” she said. “Our county does nothing to help the senior citizens, as far as income.”

Commissioner Tony Mussare insisted the commissioners “are very sensitive” to the issues seniors face, particularly those on a fixed income.

The commissioners reminded folks that the proposal is a living document, meaning it can still be changed.

“We encourage feedback,” said Beth Johnston, director of fiscal services. “Any changes that we make between this public display budget and the final approval, we have to announce on the day that it’s approved.”

The commissioners meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. on Nov. 30 will be considered a public comment meeting, she added, so community members can add to the budget discussion. Final approval is slated to take place during the commissioners meeting at 10 a.m. on Dec. 7.