Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri proposed a 4 percent tax hike in 2017, saying the $4.2 million it will generate is needed to cover rising expenses and bolster services.
The budget he pitched to county council members Tuesday also would impose a new $5 fee on an estimated 280,190 vehicles registered in the county and permanently end a homestead tax break for primary residences that had been halted in 2015.
County real estate taxes on a property assessed at $100,000 would increase from $575 to $598 under his proposal. Pedri emphasized the $23 increase amounts to $2 more per month on such a property.
The county’s general fund operating budget would swell $6 million to a new total of $136.2 million.
Pedri pointed to several additional expenses: $700,000 to help shore up a gap in the employee pension fund, $550,000 for union raises and benefits, a $350,000 rise in debt repayments and $2.8 million for a Children and Youth funding match that had been covered by a one-time debt restructuring windfall not available again.
The county also faces $470,000 in additional litigation expenses partly due to some past suits against the county that are nearing adjudication, Pedri said. He also said he expects litigation involving the July deaths of an inmate and corrections officer inside a county prison elevator shaft.
Another $1.13 million is needed for the administration to “properly meet” goals specified in the county’s five-year financial recovery plan and provide “exemplary customer service” to county citizens, Pedri said.
For example, Pedri is seeking 18 new positions that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The county’s workforce was “cut too deep” in some areas and is now around 1,400, compared to a count of 2,000 a little over a decade ago, Pedri said.
Managers will present justification for the additional positions at future budget sessions, he said, rattling off preliminary arguments.
The prison needs two additional minimal offender unit lieutenants to provide oversight at that facility, he said, noting the recent filing of extortion charges against two employees in connection with work-release inmates stationed at that building. He also wants to add a maintenance technician to address building issues at the aging prison.
Another auditor is proposed for budget/finance because two employees process more than $250 million in bills when all county funds are factored in, creating a backlog when one is sick or on vacation, Pedri said.
A new information technology technician is on the list because employees must wait too long for help fixing computer problems due to short staffing, he said.
The vehicle registration fee would generate an estimated $1.4 million to cover maintenance of the county’s 127 miles of roads and more than 300 bridges, although Pedri said he conservatively budgeted $1.057 million.
Pedri said a state official had questioned why the county continues to seek additional state funding while failing to implement the vehicle fee option authorized by state legislators in 2013 to help counties fund road and bridge expenses.
The ordinance imposing the fee was automatically introduced as part of his budget package Tuesday but will require a majority vote of the council at a future meeting to take effect. Four council votes usually are required to introduce ordinances, but officials said the county’s home rule charter gives such authority to the manager for budgetary proposals.
An ordinance permanently ending the homestead tax break on primary residences also was automatically introduced in Pedri’s budget package.
Pedri said the county can’t afford to provide the abatement, which costs about $4.7 million, while it faces more than $350 million in debt from extensive past borrowing. Debt repayments eat up about 20 percent of the county budget, he said.
The council had planned to apply the $4.7 million to the deficit in 2017 and restore the break in 2018. The county carries a $9.4 million deficit.
Pedri, who was appointed manager in May after serving as interim head since January, said in his budget message the county has “made major strides in securing a solid financial base” since the January 2012 switch to a customized home rule government structure, including whittling down debt that was a “staggering” $420 million four years ago.
“The county’s workforce has been streamlined, and currently the county employs a much smaller number of hard working and dedicated individuals,” he wrote.
Council members did not extensively discuss the proposal Tuesday because they plan to scrutinize the budget at several upcoming work sessions. The council must adopt a budget by Dec. 15.
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash, who attended the meeting by phone, said she will participate in the review but told her colleagues she won’t support a tax increase or vehicle fee that will “burden the seniors.”
“It will be interesting the next few weeks,” she said.