No Luzerne County tax hike in 2016

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | December 15th, 2015 8:26 pm

Property owners won’t pay higher Luzerne County real estate taxes next year.

A county council majority on Tuesday night approved a 2016 budget that averted a proposed 8 percent tax hike, primarily by halting plans to pay off a large portion of the county deficit by next year.

Real estate taxes will remain at 5.7456 mills to fund the county’s $130 million general operating budget. That equates to a payment of $574.56 on a property assessed at $100,000.

The county ended 2014 with a $16.9 million deficit.

The administration wanted to shrink the deficit to $5.4 million in 2016 with the following:

• $3.8 million from this year’s debt restructuring

• $2 million from the sale of the former Valley Crest Nursing Home in Plains Township, a transaction completed Tuesday.

• $4.7 million from the suspended county homestead tax break on primary residences

• $1 million from a portion of the proposed tax hike

Instead, the county will cancel the $1 million from the tax hike and use $7.175 of the money slated for the deficit reduction to cover next year’s operating expenses, which means the county will now be around $13.5 million in the red unless additional windfalls come in.

The vote was 7-4 for the budget, with Council members Edward Brominski, Kathy Dobash, Stephen A. Urban and Stephen J. Urban opposing the plan.

Councilman James Bobeck questioned how colleagues who have repeatedly advocated for no tax hike could reject a budget without one.

Stephen J. Urban and Stephen A. Urban said they disagree with the budget’s funding of $700,000 in proposed raises for 119 non-union workers. An outside analysis said these workers are compensated below industry standards, including many who have not received increases in seven years. Urban and Urban said this study was flawed and questioned the fairness of some of the pay increases.

Brominski said he voted no because of the procedure used to whittle down the budget, saying the administration should have come up with proposed cuts — not the council.

Dobash said she believes the homestead money should go into a reserve as promised and also criticized the outside compensation analysis.

Councilman Rick Morelli said he had hoped to make more progress erasing the deficit.

“It’s not perfect, but the good news is we are not going back to the taxpayers once again,” he said of the budget.

Councilman Rick Williams said he was willing to support a tax hike to build a reserve faster but compromised on some aspects of the budget because he does not believe it’s in the best interest of citizens for council members who don’t “like a little portion” of the proposal to vote no and “throw the county into chaos.”

The council debated numerous amendments before coming up with a net $8.4 million needed to avoid a tax hike and cover $740,654 in additions that surfaced since the original budget was submitted in October. Those additions include funding for several new positions, including a deputy director in the election office the three public defender’s office staffers, and a compensation increase of up to $50,000 more for the next county manager.

A council majority rejected Stephen J. Urban’s proposal to cut the budget for court branches by more than $1 million.

In other business, the council selected five citizens to serve on a committee that will help select the county’s next manager: Carmen Ambrosino, Hughestown; Gene A. Camoni, Swoyersville; Robert E. Fisher, Salem Township; Gerard O’Donnell, Kingston Township; and Michael Giamber, Fairmount Township.

The manager position will be vacant Jan. 1 because Robert Lawton submitted his resignation, which was formally accepted by the council Tuesday night.

Under the home rule charter, the council must rely on an outside committee to seek, screen and conduct initial interviews of county manager applicants. The committee then recommends three finalists to the council for its consideration.

Lawton did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.