Lebanon County Commissioners revealed Thursday the tentative 2021 fiscal year budget, which contains no tax increase and a decrease in spending of nearly $500,000. 

Jamie A. Wolgemuth, Chief Clerk/County Administrator, said the proposed 2021 budget is $86.3 million, down from the $86.8 million 2020 budget. The proposed budget, which decreases by one-half percent, allows the current county tax millage rate to remain at 3.2925 percent for fiscal year 2021. That means a homeowner would pay about $33.00 in property taxes for every $1,000 of assessed value on their home.

The decrease in the proposed budget is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted various county programs, especially at the county prison and for several capital improvement projects, he added.

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“There was a dramatic decrease in the population at the jail, primarily due to COVID,” Wolgemuth said. “The (government-mandated) shutdown and the fact people were staying at home led to fewer arrests, fewer sentencings.”

Wolgemuth noted that the prison population was in the mid-400 range at the beginning of 2020, but plummeted as low as 240 inmates after the onset of the pandemic in mid-March. The prison population is now stabilized and has hovered around 300 to 310 inmates over the past several months, according to Wolgemuth.

Wolgemuth also praised county departments for predominantly maintaining static budgets heading into the new year because tax payments have dropped due to the lost revenue for businesses and lower wages for workers displaced by the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Revenues, unfortunately, are way down, and a big part of that is that interest plummeted, as everyone knows, just as the stock market did in the spring,” Wolgemuth said. “We are getting next to nothing for the monies that we got earning interest. At the same time, a number of the fees that are collected are down because of fewer people being out and about.”

While funding for the county prison will remain static in 2021, increases are expected for several departments, including Children and Youth Services and Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention (MHIDEI).

“Children and Youth, I think, we’re pretty accustomed to that going up as those demands increase on us as well as placements, and for various monitoring that the state continues to mandate that we add staff to lessen the caseloads per staff member, that drives those costs up,” Wolgemuth said. “MHIDEI is one that I would point to as a casualty of COVID.” 

Wolgemuth said those people living with mental health disorders have suffered since the onset of the pandemic because of an inability for healthcare professionals and those who need assistance to connect. Because mental health workers can’t submit for state reimbursement for the time they spend attempting to contact their clients, the county has had to cover those unexpected costs.

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“This has led to a decrease in their revenue and an increase in the county’s support for that department,” Wolgemuth said. 

In a separate budget item, specifically the county’s portion of the annual required contribution to the pension fund, Wolgemuth said it will be fully funded for 2021.

Wolgemuth also noted salary increases for both union and non-union employees (court-appointed and court-related professionals, non-professional workers and social services employees) of 3.5 percent while AFSCME union members, county detectives and all other non-union employees will rise by 3 percent.   

After highlighting portions of the budget, Wolgemuth cautioned the commissioners that the 2022 budget could face an increase from costs associated with the construction of the new 911 Center in 2021. He added that he expects to get the designs by the end of this month and believes groundbreaking will occur in May.  

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“In borrowing those funds, the debt service for the county is going to be higher than it is now,” said Wolgemuth. “It’s not going to be dollar to dollar higher, because there is some existing debt service that is going to fall away since it is timing out and because you are going to pay it off in 2023. But the net effect is that the debt service that will be coming on will be higher than the existing (debt).”

In addition, higher expenses for construction, labor and personnel costs will also strain the county’s coffers.

“I guess I’m here to tell you that those two things are going to combine for 2022, and I would expect you are going to be facing a much more difficult budget and likely acknowledge an increase for 2022 to cover those types of things,” Wolgemuth said, after noting the last tax millage rate increase occurred in 2016. “That’s not written in stone until we get to this point next year. I guess I’m just firing a warning shot that there’s some costs coming up.”

As noted in previous meetings, Wolgemuth said the 911 Center will most likely be the biggest expenditure in the history of Lebanon County. He cited required security measures, redundant features, and other costs associated with operating a state-of-the-art call center that meets the needs of county residents as driving up the cost for a project of this magnitude.

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“Obviously, we are in a 911 facility right now that is, space-wise, inadequate and operationally wise, with the emergency operations center, also inadequate – and the state has been telling us about that for years,” Wolgemuth said. “It’s time that we have a facility that will meet those needs for now and for many years to come.”  

The commissioners unanimously approved the tentative 2021 budget which now, by law, will be on display for public review for 21 days. The commissioners will hold a special meeting on December 24 to officially adopt the 2021 fiscal year budget.

In other county business, the commissioners, by a 2-1 vote, approved expenditures of $566,839.96 related to the federal CARES Act grant. Commissioner William Ames voted no to disburse CARES funding for those expenditures, citing the inability for the county to recoup costs associated with the administration of the Mask Up campaign.

Ames has voted against paying costs associated with the CARES Act funding at prior meetings because he disapproves of the Wolf Administration’s mandate for a public relations campaign that promotes mask wearing. Ames has stated he believes those dollars would be better spent supporting local businesses struggling to stay open.

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In a separate matter, the commissioners also reaffirmed spending $114,600 for software upgrades associated with the county’s property tax assessment evaluation program. This item had been approved as part of the 2020 budget but, due to COVID, had not yet been implemented. 

The commissioners also:

  • Learned that county officials have reached a tentative verbal agreement with the City of Lebanon to purchase their portion of space in the county/city municipal building and a property within the city that houses materials for the county’s hazmat program. Settlement on the property and building space is expected to occur no later than April 1, 2021.
  • Approved expenditures for several tourist-related events and promotional activities through the county’s tourism budget. Those approvals include:
  • $10,000 for the Lebanon Community Association for their downtown beautification program for 2021. The volunteer organization hangs flower baskets along 5th to 10th streets and at South 8th and Chestnut streets in the city.
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  • $7,500 to Historic Schaefferstown Incorporated for a sign project and promotional materials for the Alexander Schaeffer House and Farm and historic Heidelberg Township.
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  • $5,000 to the Lebanon Community Association to replace tree lights located throughout downtown Lebanon.
  • $2,500 for the promotion of the Pennsylvania Youth Livestock Expo event at the Lebanon Valley Exposition Center and Fairgrounds in December.

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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. Ames Home Services is a current advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.