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The Lancaster County general fund budget for fiscal year 2015 is coming in at $40.3 million, up from $38 million at the beginning of fiscal year 2014 and $35 million at the beginning of fiscal year 2013. The maximum tax increase of 2.3 mills for 2015 raises the property tax rate to a total of 78 mills.
For 2015, there is also a special above-the-cap property tax increase of 0.75 mills to provide extra help for the solicitor, public defender and magistrate’s court to reduce the time defendants spend awaiting trial.
Tax to the max is back with a vengeance for the second year in a row. Last year, council maxed out the tax increase by going back and implementing unused tax increases from prior years. Council also maxed out fees for services such as building permits and ambulance use, adding an extra $825,000 to the 2014 budget. For 2015, council has found a way to go above the maximum increase permitted by state law. Later in the year, council will propose renewing the expiring 1 percent sales tax as well. A tax to the max year indeed.
This year was also notable for the almost complete lack of public exposure to the budget prior to the public hearing and second reading on Monday, June 9. The budget, the subject of the public hearing on June 9, was not available online as of June 6. In fact, no copy of the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget was available online at all until just before the May 19 County Council meeting, at which the budget was given first reading. There is little public knowledge of what the budget is doing to the county.
This is no accident; making the budget available to the public requires a procedure taking only a few minutes and costing virtually nothing. The county refused to do this numerous times between the end of February and the end of May.
A main feature of the 2015 budget is the implementation of the first year of a five-year, $1.8 million plan to put the county fire service into the business of extricating people trapped in various situations, such as wrecked cars.
Last year, (fiscal year 2013) a five-year plan to bring the sheriff’s office up to strength was implemented, and the year before (fiscal year 2012), a five-year plan was implemented to add 10 full-time firefighters to Lancaster County. The county simply does not have enough money to do all these things at once.
The Lancaster firefighters program was funded with a grant to pay the required salaries ($600,000 per year). Part of the grant runs out in February ($200,000), and is funded for the 2015 fiscal year in the proposed budget. In the fiscal year 2016 budget, this program will require an additional $400,000 in new funding to replace the rest of the grant money, which will have expired by then.
Year one of the sheriff’s five-year plan to bring his nationally certified department closer to its targeted strength was funded last year. Year two ($800,000 for 12 new deputies) was not funded this year even in part, due to lack of money caused by funding the new five-year plan for the county fire service. The sheriff’s office does receive additional funds this year, but this is largely to cover the salaries of deputies hired in previous years under grants that are expiring.
Council’s and administration’s reaction to the situation? We need more taxes. How about a nice business license tax to generate $6 million per year? How about a hospitality tax on restaurants and bars?
The pattern here does not inspire much confidence in county government’s ability to manage its priorities in terms of its budget. Council is entirely too willing to sign up for programs funded by grants, without making provision for funding the programs after the grants disappear. Maintenance is being completely neglected, staffing is very thin in a number of areas, yet outside the budget purchases (at least $700,000 so far in fiscal year 2014) and pre-budget hiring authorizations abound throughout the year.
The fiscal year 2015 budget needs to be approved by June 30, but seems to have some serious problems. Time to start taking names and keeping track of who is voting for this stuff. If it cannot be gotten out in the open and under control post haste, the county is headed for heavy problems that may be very difficult to solve.
J.R. Wilt is a Van Wyck resident