Lebanon County Commissioners gave tentative approval Thursday to a $123.9 million budget, which would hike taxes by .6 mills.

That’s a increase from 3.2925 mills to 3.8925 mills for fiscal year 2022. That means a homeowner next year would pay about $3.89 in property tax for every $1,000 of assessed value on their home.

It was noted that the average assessed value of homes throughout Lebanon County is $168,950, which would increase the tax bill for most homeowners by $101.37, or $8.40 per month.

Jamie Wolgemuth, chief clerk/county administrator, said General Fund expenses are increasing by 6.63 percent to over $54 million in 2022.

“The budget, at $123 million, is a steep increase over last year’s $86 million,” said Wolgemuth. “That, however, is almost a one-time anomaly year because of the construction of the DES building, the 911 center, that being capital that’s included in this budget.

“But, of course, once the construction is complete and those funds are spent and passed through the budget, then we would go back to what I would consider a normal number or not with that (kind of) spike in capital.”

The 18 percent increase in the budget is attributed to a number of factors, including construction of the new 911 center, significant cost increases (particularly in the areas of public safety at the county jail and the Department of Emergency Services), rising employee healthcare costs and salaries, and the ongoing expenditure of $3 million associated with the county’s contract with PrimeCare Medical of Harrisburg, which was initiated in 2019, to provide healthcare services at the county prison.

Read More: Commissioners expect 2022 budget to entail tax rate increase, first since 2016

“Since 2019, the county has been facing a growing deficit, reaching $6.5 million in anticipation of 2022,” Wolgemuth wrote in a budget summary that was provided for members of the press. “Aside from real estate tax revenue and the sale of a county-owned land parcel, other sources of revenue are seeing little growth and even some reductions thereby creating a net of less revenue projected for 2022 over 2021.”

Wolgemuth added that the county has been using cash on hand over the past three years to balance the county budget, which was $86.3 million in 2021.

Of the county’s proposed $123.9 million budget, a significant portion will be for capital projects, the largest of which will be the construction of a new facility for the Department of Emergency Services to include a new 911 center, administrative offices, training space, and an operations building to house the county hazmat materials, equipment and storage for supplies at a cost of $40.9 million.

Read More: Commissioners vote to acquire 10 acres in North Cornwall for 911 Center

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Additionally, a new radio system for the 911 center will be implemented at a cost of $19.8 million, bringing the total cost of the Department of Emergency Services project to $60.7 million. The county will also spend an additional $2.25 million to purchase and renovate the city’s portion of the Lebanon County/City Municipal Building, with settlement expected in 2022.

The total $60.7 million project cost will be reduced by $18.4 million through funds allocated to Lebanon County through the American Rescue Plan Act, which was launched by the federal government earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The rest of the funds will be raised through a general obligation bond, which was also approved at the meeting, at a rate of 2.415 percent interest over the next 25 years.

In the prepared budget summary, it was noted that county employees will receive between 2 and 4 percent raises, with most averaging around 3 percent. Although the county is still negotiating with AFSCME union representatives for county correctional officers’ and corporals’ salaries at the county prison, Wolgemuth does not expect the final agreement to greatly impact the proposed budget.

Lebanon County, like many of its counterparts throughout the commonwealth, is facing a labor shortage across many of its departments, including essential services at the county prison, 911 center and Renova Center. Of the 700 positions within Lebanon County government, over 100 vacancies currently exist with a majority occurring at the county prison.

Many current prison employees are working overtime, which puts an additional strain on county coffers, added Wolgemuth.

“Recruitment and retention of employees is at an all-time low,” Wolgemuth wrote in the budget summary. “In an attempt to stem the problem, the commissioners have initiated some measures aimed at attracting applicants and are considering others in the very near-term.”

To address staff shortages, the county may use ARPA funds, and it conducted a salary survey in 2021 to gauge where Lebanon County stands in relation to counties of a similar size. Based on the survey results, Wolgemuth said that “some adjustments will be made so that the county will be in a better position to compete and retain employees in this unusual market.”

Rising healthcare costs are also impacting the budget. Wolgemuth said employee health insurance premiums for the county are increasing by 9.2 percent for 2022, an increase of $1.1 million.

Like many employers, utilization of medical services has rebounded from 2020, during which many people delayed or avoided elective and preventative care due to COVID-19. That, and inflation of healthcare costs, have resulted in a significant increase to premiums, it was noted in the press brief.

The final big-ticket item to adversely affect the 2022 budget is the county’s debt service, which has increased steadily since the contract with PrimeCare was initiated in 2019. That expenditure, plus the capital construction project, will increase the county’s debt by $1.4 million, or 38.6 percent.

Wolgemuth said a silver lining in the debt service is that in future years, it will be reduced by just over $1 million in 2023 due to the retirement of some existing long-term debt, which will reduce that line item close to previous levels, and even lower, by 2024.

Commissioner chairman Robert Phillips, responding to a comment about the budget, said, “There is no joy in Mudville.” He noted that a major focus of the budget concerns enhancing public safety.

“The county has focused heavily on providing for the safety of our citizens and an investment of this type is the way we have to do it,” Phillips said. “When they call an ambulance, the police or fire, they want the best response available, and that is what this is intended to provide. For all of our citizens, this is a good investment for the future and, at this point, it’s unavoidable.”

Commissioner William Ames said the budget is a balance of meeting public safety demands while also providing for and showing appreciation to its employees.

“Providing public safety services to 140,000 people (at this price) is a real bargain,” said Ames. “No one, and especially me, takes any pride or pleasure in raising taxes on folks that work hard to provide a home for their family and have to pay the taxes on their property. …People have to know that we had to make this change in our emergency services and I feel very comfortable in voting for this and doing the best job we can as responsible county commissioners for the county.”

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz addressed the rising costs of healthcare for county employees and used the opportunity to encourage people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 if they haven’t done so already, adding that the pandemic is a prime culprit in the escalating cost of healthcare.

The proposed budget will be available for the next 20 days for public review and comment. A formal vote will be taken at a special meeting of the commissioners to adopt it on Dec. 23.

In other county business, the commissioners:

  • Hired Sean Drasher of Palmyra as the new Chief Clerk of Elections/Voter Registration at an annual salary of $55,000. Drasher’s first day on the job is Monday, Dec. 13.
  • Approved a U.S. Homeland Security grant in the amount of $1.21 million.
  • Heard a presentation from Lori Books of North Lebanon Township, who thanked the commissioners for previously approving a $25,000 Marcellus Shale grant for a new open-air pavilion and an additional attached building at a township park.
  • Passed a resolution naming Jon Fitzkee, senior transportation planner, as signatory on behalf of the county for the execution of documents, notices, and contracts and management of projects through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Reimbursement Agreement System.
  • Agreed to the reappointment of Kimberly Miller, Marc Hess and Sue Werner to the advisory board for the department of Children and Youth Services, and Jonathan Johnson, the Rev. Alan Smith and Bonnie Pietruch to the advisory board of the county department for Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention (MH/ID/EI) services. In addition, Roberta Santiago was appointed as a member to the MH/ID/EI Advisory Board.
  • Voted unanimously to accept the treasurer’s report.
  • Approved several personnel transactions and attendance by county employees at mandated and non-mandated seminars.
  • Went into executive session following the end of the public session to discuss a personnel matter.
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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...