Tax hike proposed to help balance budget

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette
From left, Lycoming County Commissioners Rick Mirabito, Jack McKernan and Tony Mussare look over the proposed 2018 budget during the commissioners’ meeting Thursday morning in the city.

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette From left, Lycoming County Commissioners Rick Mirabito, Jack McKernan and Tony Mussare look over the proposed 2018 budget during the commissioners’ meeting Thursday morning in the city.

A county property tax increase of 0.75 mills has been proposed in the preliminary 2018 Lycoming County budget, the commissioners revealed Thursday.

The increase will bring the millage rate up from 5.75 to 6.5 mills. Homeowners with property assessed at $100,000 would see a county tax bill increase of $75.

The news follows several public meetings at which commissioners said there would not be increase this year.

If the budget is passed with a tax increase, it “will be only the second tax increase for Lycoming County in 12 years,” said Beth Johnston, director of county fiscal services.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people in the community who have said, ‘Look, we know that you’re doing the best that you can. Just don’t clobber us with a big tax increase all at once.’ We thought this was the proper thing to do at this time in order to avoid some big increase down the road,” Commissioner Jack McKernan said. “We’re not done.”

Johnston added that the commissioners have worked to reduce the original budget request, formed when department heads first submitted their budget requests, by about $11 million thus far.

The most recent expected revenues come in at $97.32 million with expenditures down to $102.54 million.

Johnston said impact fee funds are expected to cover $1.6 million, or 57 percent, of an estimated $2.8 million in capital purchases. She added the largest increase in capital purchases is for maintenance and equipment replacements at the county prison.

Though the commissioners have added a tax increase to the proposal, they say they still are working out ways to increase revenues and bring balance to the budget.

Commissioner Rick Mirabito has proposed eliminating 20 full-time county positions in order to save about $1.24 million per year on salaries and fringe benefits. Mirabito said he pushed an effort last year to downsize county staff to no avail.

In an attempt to “effectuate the staff reduction,” Mirabito motioned Thursday to ask all department heads and elected officials to identify at least two positions that they would eliminate in the next calendar year based on attrition or reorganization and to supply the commissioners with that information by Nov. 22 so the commissioners can draft a written plan to reduce the number of employees in 2018.

“This is about planning,” Mirabito said.

There are no plans to fire or otherwise cut employees, especially not during the holiday season, he said. Instead, his plan is to assess each department and figure out how to eliminate positions or combine them as employees retire, resign, etc.

“I am not going to vote for a tax increase unless there’s a clear committment by my colleagues to reduce spending,” Mirabito said. “I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

Commissioner Tony Mussare refused to second Mirabito’s motion, stating he supports minimizing staff where possible but asking every department head to eliminate two positions is “unrealistic.”

“Given Commissioner Mirabito’s past history as an attorney who organized labor unions, he seems to be, successfully, trying to unionize the entire county,” Mussare said.

Mussare said Lycoming County operates with a similar number of employees as other fifth-class counties, and added that he would estimate 15 to 20 percent of county employees make more than $60,000 per year.

“That’s what killed this county,” he said. “Not the number of employees, but their pay.”

Commissioner Jack McKernan seconded Mirabito’s motion, and it was approved by a 2-1 vote. McKernan said he is in favor of getting that information but he believed having a formal motion was unnecessary.

“All three of us have the same concerns. We care about what we’re doing,” he said. “I’m willing to do this, see what comes in.

“It’s going to be impractical for some areas that have already made cuts,” McKernan added.

Copies of the budget proposal may be viewed online at www.lyco.org or in person at county offices and in the James V. Brown Library.

A meeting to further discuss the budget proposal with community members will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Jersey Shore Public Library. Folks also are encouraged to speak up about it at the commissioners’ meeting at 10 a.m. Nov. 30.

Pending public comment, the commissioners are expected to approve a final budget on Dec. 7.

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