At the end of 2022, Schuylkill County Commissioners approved a balanced budget for this year without increasing property taxes.
It’s the fifth consecutive year in which property taxes remained the same. For 2023, the millage rate stays at 15.98.
“Thank you for no tax increase,” Commissioners Chairman Boots Hetherington told Finance Director Paul Buber, as he presented the budget.
What Boots probably meant to say is, “Thank you for making it possible for us to brag about not increasing taxes just a few months before a hotly contested election for my part-time job that pays a full-time salary.”
See, in order to pass that balanced budget and not raise your taxes, the County had to cover a $10.2 million shortfall. That shortfall was originally more than $13 million but the County was able to shave off about $3 million from its $220.2 million spending plan for this year.
The Commissioners then approved a plan to cover that shortfall by taking money from two funds: the unassigned fund balance and money they got as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Schuylkill County will pull $4.6 million from that unassigned fund balance. It’ll also use $5.6 million in ARPA funds and that’ll cover the $10.2 million.
But the Commissioners won’t have ARPA funds forever. In fact, they have a half-baked plan to spend about 3x as much as they’re using to cover a budget shortfall on other projects this year.
And it’s very likely the next Commissioners, whoever they are, will be facing an annual budget shortfall just as big or maybe even bigger for years to come. That’ll mean some tough decisions at the Courthouse: cut spending or raise taxes or both.
You can probably count on taxes going up in the future. Here’s why …
Schuylkill County Has a Big $10.2 Million Problem That Isn’t Going Away
When laying out the spending plan for 2023, Buber noted several expenses that are causing budgetary headaches. And the way he was talking, these are problems that aren’t going away, at least not without some bold decisions by future Commissioners.
Buber says the County will incur a 3% increase in employee spending. That doesn’t include elected officials but they’re the minority among people paid by the County.
That 3% increase is equal to about $630,000 across the board.
Another slightly minor increase in the budget from 2022 to 2023 is seen in 9-1-1 operations, Buber explains. That 5% increase accounts for another $157,000. That increase is primarily driven by two factors: That 3% increase in employee salaries and a worker shortage within the department.
The shortage, Buber says, will likely lead to the County paying more in overtime wages to the employees that work at 9-1-1 now.
Those increases don’t even account for $1 million. Small potatoes, really, especially in comparison to the other increased expenses for 2023.
Let’s Go Brandon?
The other increases in spending for 2023 seem to be rooted in more current economic conditions. And their impacts on the budget are eye-opening.
Again, there’s no indication these things will be going away, at least not entirely.
For instance, the County expects to pay 12% more in 2023 for employee healthcare expenses. Buber explains that this $1.6 million increase over 2022 is “primarily being driven by new medications coming to the marketplace.”
He says this usually isn’t a normal increase – yes, it’s usually some but not 12% year over year – but it could become one of those infamous new norms.
“I was hoping this was going to be an outlier but I’m being advised by an outside healthcare consultant that this may be becoming the new norm, in terms of double-digit increases,” Buber told Commissioners.
Then there’s the 78.3% increase in pension plan costs. That’s $1.07 million more than last year.
The drastic increase in the County’s contribution to that pension plan is largely due to market conditions.
Buber says, “An outside actuary determined that partly due to the market being down, the County’s contribution must increase to compensate.”
Another big jump in spending for 2023 comes from Schuylkill County Prison. The prison budget is up 9% over last year, or $796,000 more than 2022.
The reason? Prison food.
Buber says even prison rations are subject to the same inflation we all see at the grocery store.
“We all see what’s happening at the grocery store when we go shopping. It’s no different when providing meals for prisoners,” he says.
Buber says the County’s responsibility to provide medical treatment to inmates also led to an increase in spending at the Prison.