Increase is needed to maintain valued services, commissioners said
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
The Chester County Commissioners held a meeting Tuesday night to elicit comment on the preliminary 2013 budget. Even though the blueprint contains the first tax increase in five years, it generated nary a whimper from the public.
The $521.8 million proposal, scheduled for a vote on Dec. 13, includes a ½-mill tax hike that translates to $32.86 for a property assessed at the median value of $165,760, said County Chief Executive Officer Mark Rupsis.
The need to raise property taxes – the only tax the commissioners are authorized to levy – resulted from a combination of factors, said Rupsis. Chief among them is the $55 million cost associated with switching from an analog to a digital radio system for the county’s Department of Emergency Services. Although a bond issue will spread the cost over a number of years, the expenditure will have a significant impact, Rupsis said.
In addition, Rupsis said a flat tax base, declining interest income, rising employee pension and benefit costs, and a decrease in fees for county services also contributed to a budget gap. For example, fines and costs collected by district judges declined because more people qualified as indigent, he said.
Elaborating on reduced interest income, Rupsis said the county earned nearly $12 million in 2007, an amount that eliminated the need for a 1/3-mill tax increase. In 2013, interest earnings are estimated at $208,700, a decrease of about $170,000 from 2012.
The proposed 2013 budget would increase from $514.1 million in 2012 to $521.8 million, which includes about $424 million in operating expenses and $97 million in capital expenses.
Rupsis said many cost-cutting measures were employed to help close the budget gap. He said county employees are paying 22 percent more for health insurance than they did in 2008. Department heads pared their budgets by 3 percent, and the county eliminated 200 positions this past year through 87 layoffs and attrition, Rupsis said.
Charles Kalemjian of Uwchlan Township questioned the “inordinate amount of money” for the radio system, but he was assured by the commissioners that the cost, estimated several years ago at $90 million, had been whittled down as much as possible. “This is a project that really can’t wait,” said Commissioner Kathi Cozzone, explaining that it is “difficult, if not impossible” to get parts for the antiquated equipment.
Commissioners’ Chairman Terence Farrell added that the current system, purchased in the ‘90s, costs over $1 million a year to maintain. The new system will be less expensive over time since it can be updated with software, he said.
Casey Jones of Parkesburg urged the commissioners to “reallocate” funds in the Department of Emergency Services. He said he felt the county did an inadequate job of keeping citizens informed during the recent hurricane and the last two tropical storms that hit Chester County.
All three commissioners expressed surprise that they had not received more complaints about the proposed tax hike. “We received more input for pasta than we had for this budget,” Farrell said, referring to a Nov. 27 request by a local congregation of Pastafarians.
The group, whose deity was identified as the flying spaghetti monster, sought representation – specifically a tree with pasta-themed ornaments – in the county’s holiday display on the lawn of the historic courthouse. The request, which was denied, was excerpted from the video of the commissioners’ meeting and turned into a YouTube hit with nearly 24,000 viewings as of Tuesday night.
Although far fewer people used their noodles to respond to the budget process, the commissioners theorized that citizens seemed to understand today’s economic realities and to value the services the county provides.
“A lot of these things are beyond our control,” said Commissioner Ryan Costello, addressing about 20 spectators, half a dozen of whom were county employees. Costello said he believed residents appreciated “common-sense, cost-cutting actions across the board.”