What taxpayers need to know about Lycoming County budget

The Sun Gazette’s editorial on November 20 raised questions about how the County will eliminate a 2017 budget deficit of $9,654,044.  Also, the County’s General Fund Balance (money in reserve) is projected to shrink to approximately $6,628,545 by December 31, 2017, but prudent financial management practices recommend that the County maintain a Fund Balance of $16 million.

Since taking office in January 2016, I have learned that prior Commissioners practiced a culture of deficit spending.  Deficits for the County as a whole from 2009 to 2015 total $71,605,189 ($2.7 million in 2009; $2.1 million in 2010; $4 million in 2011; $7.2 million in 2012; $11.7 million in 2013; $15.8 million in 2014; and $28.1 million in 2015).

To end this deficit spending and balance the budget, I have recommended a common sense approach which will reduce the deficit to $4,779,044 by December 2017.  This approach will enable us to eliminate the projected deficits for 2018 and 2019.

The approach includes:

(1) Saving $1,200,000 each year in wages, pension, and health care costs by eliminating 20 positions through attrition. The number of full-time employees in 2012 was 519.  By December 2015, the number increased by 33 positions to 552.

(2) Saving $3 million dollars over three years by eliminating a new program, known as GEO, which seeks to reduce prison overcrowding and recidivism, but which is very expensive and of questionable effectiveness.

(3) Saving $600,000 over three years in property taxes by using Hotel Tax revenue to pay for tourist related activities which many taxpayers believe should not be paid for with property tax revenue, including the Community Arts Center, the White Deer golf course, and the Taber Museum.

(4) Gaining $325,000 by selling excess County land in Loyalsock.

(5) Raising $2,800,000 in revenue by increasing taxes by one-half mil which will cost a household with a property assessed at $100,000 approximately $50 per year.

I do not want to raise taxes.  I also do not want to “kick the can down the road” and continue a culture of deficit spending which has gone on for years.

I do not come to the decision to eliminate the GEO program lightly, and some will object.  The program will be three years old in June 2017.  The reality is that we do not have the money we are spending on the program.  Politicians often blame Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. for mandated programs; this one was created voluntarily to reduce out-of-county prison costs.

But consider the facts.  Before GEO, the County spent $339,756 on out-of-county prison costs in 2012 and $167,029 in 2013, for a total of $506,785.  From 2014 to 2017, the County will have spent $2,533,083 on GEO and $1,971,653 on out-of-county prison costs!

Moreover, the GEO costs are underreported because the County does not charge GEO rent and the County pays GEO’s utilities at Executive Plaza, a 3 year loss of $108,000 to the County.   Two County employees assist with the GEO program at a cost of approximately $120,000 per year or $360,000 for 3 years.

In the first 2½ years of the program, only 24% or 151 participants (out of 633 intakes) have achieved “success” status, meaning that that they did not end up back in jail.  Thus, the total cost for GEO over three years will be $3,001,083 or $19,875 for every “successful” participant who does not go back to jail.  Yet if even 10% of the “successful” participants (15 people) wind up back in jail in the next year, the cost per participant will increase to $22,067 per person.

We need to learn from the money that we have spent on GEO and move on to find more cost effective and efficient ways to deal with prison overcrowding and reducing recidivism.  Moving on is not a repudiation of the past, but an opportunity to build on the lessons learned.

The worst part of this situation is that GEO is completely funded by local taxpayers.  Because the heroin/opioid crisis is a regional problem, we should seek to obtain state and federal funds to solve it.  In meetings that the Commissioners have held with federal and state officials, there are indications of money available for such programs.

The County has a limited amount of revenue. We have to use it efficiently and effectively. I do not profess to have all the answers.  I do know that the decisions will not be easy, but must be made.  If we do not deal with the fiscal reality we face, we will have severe problems. Please call me at 570-320-2124 with your comments.

Mirabito is a Lycoming County Commissioner.