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Even when times are good, it’s always a challenge for officials to write the county budget. Conflicting interests are always at play, and the money can never be stretched as far as County Council would like.
This year, of course, isn’t the best of times. Gas prices are at record highs, and the price of gas has started to affect the price of food and clothing. The local housing market, many say, remains good, but there has been a slowdown in the issuance of building permits.
Then there’s the unemployment rate. For more than a year, the county’s rate has hovered near or above double-digits and has ranked near the top of the state for unemployment, mainly due to the exodus of Springs Global jobs.
The shuttering of Springs Global’s plants in Lancaster County will hit the county directly in its pocketbook this year. It’s losing about $300,000 in tax revenues because the company has now ceased most of its operations here.
The county will also have new expenses in the 2008-09 budget it can’t avoid, such as hiring employees to staff the new library and new emergency medical services substation in Indian Land. Complicating things further is a proposed state law that won’t allow counties to collect funds from market-sale values of homes. This, County Administrator Steve Willis says, makes it impossible to forecast accurately what revenue will be coming in.
Because of the state of the economy and the budget issues the county are already facing, it simply isn’t the right time for County Council to move forward on another plan it had for seeking revenue. That is, council plans to ask voters for a 1-cent local tax to pay for local projects. Officials have proposed using the 1-penny tax to pay the estimated $20 million cost of a new county courthouse.
Council has also proposed using the sales tax to expand the main branch of the Lancaster County Library, as well as public works facilities, and to improve utility lines in the county’s municipalities.
There’s no disputing the need for most of these items. The county’s Robert Mills courthouse is beautiful and full of history, but it is woefully outdated. It’s far too small and isn’t equipped with the security devices that a courthouse really must have in this day and age. Though nowhere as old as the courthouse, time has taken a toll the main library in downtown Lancaster. There’s neither enough space there for it to serve the public adequately or for its staff to work.
But 2008 isn’t the right year to ask taxpayers for the money for these projects. Too many residents here are struggling, and most of us lucky enough to have stable jobs have had to make cutbacks in what we buy at the grocery store and where we travel because of the cost of living. Instead of pressing forward with the 1-cent tax referendum, we think council would be wise to put the brakes on the issue.
Perhaps in another couple of years, the economy and local jobless rate will have improved, and this will be an idea that residents here will find palatable. This year, we think council will face a tough sale with it.