County budget: Public hearing sees overarching issues

Lycoming County’s preliminary 2019 budget shows an overall deficit of $8,898,697 in its most recent update, said Brandy Clemens, deputy director of the county’s fiscal department, during a public hearing Thursday evening.

Revenues for the general fund, which includes tax dollars, stand at $65,580,806 for a total expected revenue of $103,976,093 — about $46,000 less than the approved 2018 budget.

Expenditures for the general fund are expected to be $75,131,449 bring the total expenditures to $112,874,790 — a 7 percent increase over 2018’s approved expenditures of $105.6 million.

No tax increase is being considered at this time.

The main cause for the deficit is that the commissioners plan to float a $6.4 million bond by the end of the year, which will look like a surplus for 2018 but will appear as an expense in future years.

“We’re going to issue a bond this year — we will receive the money this year,” said Commissioner Jack McKernan. “So we view our starting point to be about $3,150,643 as our target for what we’re trying to eliminate.”

The bond will help cover some of the cost of the radio system overhaul, projected to cost over $7 million. The bond also will cover the $2 million state mandate to replace all county voting machines, McKernan said.

Other topics of interest to the commissioners and the community, which will impact the budget, include the White Deer Golf Complex, healthcare, a new building for the coroner’s office and the leachate tank at the landfill.

Golf course

The current county commissioners invested $1 million in the golf course over a three-year contract with Billy Casper Golf — the end of that third year is nearing.

Although the commissioners stated last budget season that a contingency plan for the complex was in place should it not turn a profit in 2018, the course’s success despite this year’s weather seems to have the commissioners questioning their course of action.

“I’m concerned about the golf course — the ubiquitous golf course,” said Commissioner Rick Mirabito. “I’m hoping that the public will come out to the next meeting and tell us one way or another.”

The course was closed to consumers on 18 different days this year due to rain on those specific days, McKernan said. The round-count as of Sept. 30 went down to 38,800 this year from over 45,000 in 2017, he said. Earnings, before interest depreciation, were just over $31,000 in 2017 which increased drastically, despite closures due to rain, to $94,944 this year.

“That’s almost three times as high as in the previous year, and that’s with crappy weather,” McKernan said.

Health care and pensions

The commissioners expect an increase in healthcare costs, and have raised the cost of premiums “slightly” in the preliminary budget, McKernan said. Deductibles also show an increase, with the lowest deductible of $250 doubling to $500, he said.

In an attempt to start reigning in the costs of healthcare, the county is starting its own wellness program. The program is in the early stages, having rolled out at the beginning of fall, and McKernan expects 30 to 40 percent of the county’s employees will participate.

“If you have a wellness program, we can get on the front side of preventing illnesses or we could find serious illnesses sooner and try to address them sooner,” he said. “In both cases, we should — in the longer term, keep our healthcare costs down, which is a benefit to the taxpayers and to the employees.”

The budget also shows a contingency of $2,758,085 (a 318 percent increase over 2018’s $666,458 contingency), which includes $1.5 million toward healthcare in the event of a “catastrophic loss,” as advised by the county’s insurance broker, McKernan added.

The county has “thousands” of claims totaling over $8 million, said Commissioner Tony Mussare said. In addition to starting the wellness program, the commissioners are researching having its own wellness facility in partnership with other public entities to fight these costs.

“If we could partner up with other public entities and possibly bring in our own people …,” Mussare said. “How many people have MRIs? This is what we’re checking out. If we’re getting charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for an MRI and an MRI (machine) costs us a million bucks to buy and we can subcontract a radiologist — what can we save over a 10 year period?”

“I don’t want to say we want to compete with the healthcare system but, you know what, we need to start seriously looking at this,” he said.

Coroner’s new building

The coroner, currently housed at UPMC Susquehanna Williamsport, is seeking a new home for his department that will lend itself to safe storage for vehicles with specialty equipment, room for storing the deceased and the ability to be retrofitted with decontamination equipment.

“With four hospitals now, with Geisinger planning another hospital in, we just don’t have the capabilities to handle the numbers,” said Chuck E. Keissling Jr., county coroner, adding numbers will climb more if Williamsport hospital is designated a trauma center in 2019. “We really need our own stand-alone facility to have complete control for investigative purposes.”

His budget shows a $500,000 placeholder for the potential purchase and renovation of a suitable building. The coroner has over $140,000 in special funds plus about $26,000 from fees collected which the can be used for these purposes, Mirabito said.

Although the county has excess buildings, some of which it is trying to sell, commercial office buildings don’t suit the coroner’s needs, the commissioners said.

“It doesn’t make sense to turn around and buy [property] for him when we already have property that we’re trying to sell, when we can’t even get people to rent from us,” said Todd Lauer, a Jersey Shore resident. “That’s ludicrous.”

“If we had a place for the coroner that we could even retrofit, we would do it,” Mirabito said. “We tend to own commercial office buildings. If you have an office building and you need a garage…”

Leachate tank

The commissioners project the leachate tank, which holds up to 5.5 million gallons of wastewater and has never been used due to structural deficiencies found upon completion, will be up and running by the end of 2019.

The county has been in litigation with Lobar Construction Services Inc. since early in 2017 over the construction of the $5.7 million tank, which was presumed complete in 2013 or 2014.

Should the county be successful in its suit, damages owed to it will include the cost of trucking out excess leachate to comply with state regulations — costs that exceed $100,000 nearly every year, and which more than doubled for 2018 due to the abnormal amount of rain.

No details on the litigation could be shared, except to say that “we’ve made a bit more headway,” McKernan said.

The preliminary budget, which will continue to be adjusted over the coming weeks, is available online at www.lyco.org and in various county offices for public review.

Two more hearings will be held, one from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hughesville Public Library and the other from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Jersey Shore Area Library. The commissioners expect to adopt a final budget at their meeting Dec. 6.