County Commissioners unveil 2019 budget

Warren County has released a preliminary $14.7 million spending plan for 2019.

The Warren County Commissioners held a special meeting on Wednesday to discuss the plan prior to releasing the document to the public.

“This budget, I think, fully conforms with the Sunshine Law as well as all aspects of the county code that are relevant to the budget,” Commissioner Ben Kafferlin said. “(I) don’t know I could say that was 100 percent true previous years.”

He said he was “pleased with the process” and said the “most exciting news” is that there are no tax increases in the proposal.

With the county retiring the last of its bond debt, one mill of taxes previously dedicated to debt has been converted to general fund revenue.

Kafferlin acknowledged Commissioner Cindy Morrison’s suggestion at a meeting last week that the county offer a one mill tax cut. “Unfortunately (she) did not have any suggestions on what specifically would be cut,” he said. “We were not able to find a sufficient amount to have any kind of tax decrease.”

He added that the “real reason for that” was that the 2018 budget “had a significant error” in that it assumed that 100 percent of all tax duplicates would be returned on time.

“That caused us to overbudget by approximately $1 million in 2018,” he said.

However, he described the 2019 budget as “balanced” and “realistic” and credited Fiscal Director Eric Hern, Treasurer Denny Munksgard, and Commissioner Jeff Eggleston for making the revenue budget “as realistic as possible” and a “very realistic picture of what happened in the past and what (we) anticipate happening next year.”

Eggleston said that Commissioner Morrison “really wanted to be at this meeting,” but he explained that with the period of time the budget must be on public display before it can be approved that the meeting on Wednesday could not be moved to another day.

“The three commissioners have not met in private to help craft this,” said Kafferlin, noting they have, however, given input.

“Today is the first time we’re really discussing any ideas as far as other things… aside what is in this baseline budget,” he continued.

The over-budget issue has likely been solved.

“We are budgeting ($9,450,000) this year which we feel is reasonable given appeals and a lot of other things,” he said, noting the amount “does not fluctuate too dramatically. (It’s) just a matter of tracking it consistently.”

He said the budget also includes a $200,000 transfer – the remainder of the funds from the North Warren land deal – into the general fund in order to serve as a contingency.

Kafferlin noted that grants were received – $150,000 from the USDA and $450,000 from PEMA – to help offset the cost of the $1.8 million emergency radio replacement agreed to this year.

Eggleston noted roughly $300,000 in health care savings over the last two years and added that jail supply costs are down and said that “Warden (Jon) Collins and his staff have done a very good job reducing costs at the jail.”

He also suggested that Morrison’s proposal for approximately $6,500 to the Penn State Extension office to help fund a part-time master gardener coordinator be included in the budget. “I think it would help them and help us,” he said

An additional $60,000 savings will come to the county from not renewing a contact with the state lobbying firm of Long Nyquist and Associates.

“From my perspective, a lot of that has to do with the tightness of the budget,” Eggleston said. “(There are) not as many projects (currently) for them to work on.”

He speculated that 2019 would be a “good planning year” for projects in 2020.

Treasurer Denny Munksgard said he would have suggested using the millage from the debt service to start a capital improvement fund but speculated that an agreement in place with ABM for deferred energy savings would result in “helping us get some of the work done.”

“That’s exactly the case,” Kafferlin said, explaining that the last couple years the commissioners have ranked the needed capital projects and said that the result is the county “really just dealing with emergencies and not catching up.”

The ABM agreement would be “very strategic,” he added, noting that the firm is currently undertaking a capital inventory of the county’s needs which is concluding that a “significant portion of things… that are past their useful life.”

He said that the firm “in order to save on maintenance costs or emergency replacement” is “going to pitch us the idea of replacing it all up front” with a payment that would not require increased taxes as the capital needs are “ballooning all at once.”

Kafferlin said ABM would be presenting initial findings to the commissioners on Dec. 26.

“This is a no tax increase level budget with moderate changes,” Eggleston said. “A lot of what has been done in the budget is to make the numbers more realistic.”

He said the approach to the budget was “all hands on deck.

“We tried to be as critical as we could be. (We were) more stingy than maybe we’ve ever been. Eric (Hern) pushed us to be that way and it’s a good thing.”