It really wasn’t a surprise to hear the two sitting Schuylkill County Commissioners defend their fiscal responsibility and budgeting practices at the recent candidates debate.
Let’s be honest, anything to the contrary would be like an admission of being sloppy with the people’s money.
Their challengers, however, have a bit of a different take on how the current and past Commissioners have handled money.
Fiscal responsibility was one of the questions asked at the debate. Here’s a look at how each of the candidates responded:
Hess: County is Financially Healthy
Democrat Commissioner Gary Hess touted the County’s zero-based budgeting practice, where each department essentially starts at $0 with each new budgeting session and needs to justify each expense they think they’ll have for the coming year.
He said the County government has been doing that for the 12 years he’s served as Commissioner and property taxes have only been raised 3 times in that span. Hess said he only voted in favor of 1 of them.
“We try not to raise taxes. We look at cutting expenses and throughout the Courthouse; we did that,” Hess said during the debate. “We looked at the lighting. Even with heating, we looked at that.
“The way we balance our funds over the last 12 years is we have our reserves. That’s what you call a structural deficit,” he added.
Hess said he remembers twice when the state government hadn’t passed a budget on time and without those reserves at the county level, the local government would have been forced to take out loans to pay its bills due to lack of state funding.
He described the County as “financially healthy” due to its Aa2 rating with Moody’s.
Hess said, “I feel that we are financially stable and we can move forward into the future.”
Hetherington: We’re Facing Increased Costs, But No New Taxes in 2024
Republican Commissioner Boots Hetherington touted his experience in budgeting with the County government but also in time with the state and federal Dept. of Agriculture.
“Folks, budgeting is a difficult process,” he said.
He said making it extra difficiult, as he sees it, on the County is the local government facing rising costs but no new revenue coming into the coffers.
Hetherington said there’s a $1 million increase in employee health insurance, an $800,000 increase in promised raises, and $1.2 million in pension fund increases. against a “flat income” due to no tax increases.
“You have to be very creative to make that a balanced budget,” Hetherington said, believing he and the Commissioners have since he joined the board in 2020. The County has had the unusual benefit of tens of millions of extra dollars from COVID relief packages from the federal government, the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.
Hetherington said the County is anticipating no tax increase for 2024.
Now, Hess and Hetherington’s competition in the General Election don’t necessarily believe things have gone as swimmingly as the incumbents are saying. At least, they could do more.
Here’s what they said about fiscal responsibility and what they’d do if elected:
Padora: Outsourcing Services Lets Money Out of the County
Republican contender Larry Padora said during the debate that the County government sends too much of its own money out of the county in the form of consultant contracts.
He also pointed to what he said is $1 million in money spent on transporting inmates at the overcrowded local lock-up to out-of-county prisons.
“We need to stop outsourcing. We’re outsourcing about $1 million a year with prisoners being housed all over the state. That’s another million dollars we can keep here,” Padora said. “We’ve got to look at all the outsourcing we do, all the special advisors. We have talented people here who offer their services at a much cheaper rate.”
Most importantly, he believes, is the County needing to grow its tax base. And to do that, it may cost money in the form of building up infrastructure.
“The biggest thing we need to do is we need to grow Schuylkill County. We need infrastructure development, housing development. That grows your tax base. That brings more money in,” Padora added.
If that doesn’t happen, Padora believes his background makes him a good fit for the role of Commissioner.
“I come from a small business background. We learned to do more with less,” he said.
Padora also serves on New Ringgold Borough Council and said that’s another feather in his proverbial penny-pinching cap.
“If you ever served on Council, you know how to do more with less and that’s what the County needs to do,” he said.
Anczarski-Baldino: A Happy Workplace is an Efficient Workplace
During the debate, Democrat challenger Rita Anczarski-Baldino focused mostly on running the Courthouse more effectively. And she believes that will help the County save money and the Courthouse, as a workplace, do much better than she believes it has recently.
“What I bring to the table is an understanding of human behavior. I want to treat people with respect and dignity to help them be efficient in the workplace,” she said. “People aren’t machines but we can be more productive when the workplace is a happy place. I don’t know how that would translate into tax increases or no tax increases but I do believe that people are our greatest resource and I’d like to be a part of helping to take care of them, given recent events in Schuylkill County government.”
In terms of actual dollars and cents, Anczarski-Baldino said being fiscally responsible is something she can handle because it’s something we all must do on a daily basis.
“Fiscal responsibility is something that each of us in our own homes in our own lives know. If we don’t have the nickel to buy something, we don’t buy it,” she said.
The Democrat also suggested the County reach out to local organizations to help provide some of the services that seem to cost the government so much.
“The other thing I bring to the table is an understanding of how NGOs (non-government organizations) can help support the projects and the plans that government provides for the people, the churches, the volunteer groups,” she added.
Woll: Concerns About Deficit and Contracts
The Libertarian Gregory Woll expressed some deep concerns, despite what the incumbents said, over the financial health of Schuylkill County government. He pointed to what he called a debt and the deficit faced at last year’s budgeting session.
“As a Libertarian, fiscal responsibility is kind of one of my tenants. I’m extremely concerned with the economic footing of our county,” Woll said. “The County is carrying about $26 million in debt. Last year’s budget had a deficit of almost $10 million, which is obviously not sustainable. Those things are very concerning.”
He also questioned how the County government spends the money it has. Woll didn’t just make critiques on this point. He offered an example and how he’d have handled it differently.
“There are definitely contracts we can look at. One of the contracts that was agreed to most recently was a renewal of a Microsoft software for about $250,000,” he said, as an example. “We could have saved $125,000 in that contract if we had moved to something like Google Workspace, which is a standard now in a lot of companies. Using Google instead of Microsoft, we could have saved the County $125,000 there. And that’s just one contract.”
That may be just the beginning when it comes to the countless contracts Commissioners agree to almost weekly at their meetings.
“I think we need to look through all of our contracts. We need to go out and actually do a bit of procurement and be competitive with what we’re looking at,” he said.
You can watch this section of the debate and see the candidates’ full answers here: