Lebanon County Commissioners on Thursday approved a tentative $100.5 million county fiscal budget for 2023, which does not include a tax increase.
The county will maintain its current millage of 3.8925 mills, meaning a homeowner next year will pay about $3.89 in property tax for every $1,000 of assessed value on their home. The last county real estate millage increase occurred in 2022.
“No millage rate is being proposed,” said county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth. “However, with that there is a need to add $2.1 million in fund reserves to balance the revenue side of things. Some of those funds are available to balance as cash on hand, but obviously as any household and any government will see, those will diminish over time and it can’t be done each time.
“At some point that has to be made up.”
While there is a slight decrease in General Fund revenue of $152,581 from $53.64 million to $53.49 million, General Fund expenses will increase by 2.58 percent from $54.2 million to $55.6 million.
“While property values are still relatively high, residential construction is anticipated to slow down due to interest rate hikes, impacting real estate tax revenue as well as building code fees and anything else related to the building industry,” said Wolgemuth.
The biggest increase in expenditures within the county’s 40 departments is for Children and Youth Services at $1.2 million, a 7.45 percent increase.
“It seems a year after year increase in demand for juvenile and delinquent facility placements and the steep inflationary costs due to workforce shortages that everyone else is having,” Wolgemuth said.
“I think some of those facilities – if they can find them – are approaching $1,000 per day placement, depending on the type of juvenile, the type of crime that they’ve committed.”
Wolgemuth added that’s a cost the county has no control over.
“That just continues to go up and there’s not much the county can do about that,” he noted. “It’s court ordered, required, and the cost is whatever we’re presented with.”
Wolgemuth said the county has struggled with labor shortages across most departments as well as the recruitment of new workers and retention of current employees. To address the problem, the commissioners increased wages in two phases in 2022 following a salary survey study of other municipal governments in the surrounding area.
“Those increases continue and compound,” said Wolgemuth. “That’s something that once you implement, you know you are going to maintain those costs. I’d say that has hit us pretty hard. It was necessary, it was necessary at the jail.”
One of the largest wage increases occurred for county correctional officers, who saw starting wages rise from $16 to $21 after the prison’s complement had fallen from 75 to 31 correctional officers (CO). Today, there are eight CO vacancies at the prison, said Wolgemuth, who added that the prison currently has about 270 to 275 inmates, down from a high of about 400 prisoners.
“Labor is our largest expense, as it is with any government agency, so that goes along with it,” said Wolgemuth.
Employee salary increases for 2023 are as follows:
- County Detectives Union – 5 percent (consisting of 3 members)
- AFSCME (Lebanon County Correctional Facility) – 4 percent
- Chocolate Workers (Department of Emergency Services) – 4 percent
- Court Related Non-Professionals – 3.25 percent
- Social Services – 3 percent
- Non-Union – 3 percent
- Court Appointed Professionals – in negotiations
Wolgemuth was asked by LebTown if potential fees for attorneys who represent indigent clients in criminal cases was included in the 2023 budget proposal since that fee structure is expected to increase next year.
Fees will probably rise after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a letter of complaint with Tylwalk concerning conflict of interest cases where the public defender’s office is unable to provide legal representation.
Tylwalk previously told LebTown that the county is surveying county bar association members and non-bar members to learn who might be willing to participate in a voluntary system and what kind of fees those attorneys would expect to be paid.
In cases involving indigent defendants, they normally get a public defender paid for by their county of residence. However, if the public defender has a conflict of interest – such as often happens when one crime leads to several arrests – the court can compel a private attorney to represent an indigent. Such “court-appointed” attorneys, who serve involuntarily, must also be paid by the county.
“We had a pretty lengthy discussion on that during the budget hearing with Judge Tylwalk,” said Wolgemuth. “I agree it will likely increase. There’s pressure to do that. Other counties have faced it and had to deal with it. I don’t have numbers in the 2023 budget that are any different. In speaking with the President Judge, he’s still on the negotiating end of that, I guess. He has not proposed a larger number nor has the public defender, but I believe that can be expected as a reality.”
Another area impacted by rising costs is the county’s pension fund. The county plans to contribute about $3.1 million to the Annual Required Contribution to the Pension Fund to ensure it is fully funded.
“Since investment returns have slipped in the last two years after being used to very good returns the last 10 to 12 years, there’s a good chance that may go up,” said Wolgemuth. “Of course, when the stock market doesn’t perform well, the burden is still on the county to ensure the solvency of that fund.”
Employee health insurance premiums also spiked from last year by about $1 million, or 9.4 percent. Health insurance premiums had increased by 9.2 percent in 2022.
Overall, the 2023 proposed budget decreases by nearly $23.59 million, or 19 percent, over last year’s $124.1 million budget. The largest decrease in spending ($23.6 million or minus 67.97 percent) was in the Capital Project Fund, which was higher last year to help fund construction of the county’s new $40 million 911 Center, which is expected to open in June 2023.
“We’re over by about $200,000 in change orders that have (already) gone through here,” said Wolgemuth about unexpected costs related to the county’s new 911 Center. “We have about $1.5 million in contingencies for overages, so we’re doing well there. Some of the riskier or chances for overages we’re past now.”
He said that when the budget process began in October, the county was facing a potential deficit of $6 million. To lessen that shortfall, the county implemented an initiative whereby savings are realized by the deficit in the full complement of county employees, which is typically around 8 percent annually.
“In the past, we’ve budgeted for full employment – 100 percent employment and 100 percent benefits being utilized and so on,” said Wolgemuth. “Over the last two years, with the workforce shortages that have been happening and the Great Resignation as it’s been called, we’ve had a lot of vacancies. Even when we’re not in that kind of an environment, we still have vacancies so we looked at the last four years… and we’ve found about an 8 percent vacancy (rate).”
By budgeting at 92 percent instead of 100 percent, the county will realize about $2 million in savings.
“It’s not cutting positions, it’s just being realistic about how many positions are going to be filled,” added Wolgemuth. “If for some reason, employment spikes to 94 percent, that will simply impact the budget, but we’re confident 8 percent is a good number having looked at it.”
The county’s proposed 2023 fiscal year budget is open for a 20-day review and comment period from the public. The budget is expected to be approved at a special public meeting of the commissioners on Dec. 22.
In other county business, the commissioners voted to:
- Enter into an agreement with Florida- and Texas-based RealAuction.com LLC to move sheriff sales to an online platform at no cost to the county.
- Give approval to North Cornwall Township to apply for two American Rescue Plan Act grants through the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development. One request is for a water and sewer grant for the replacement and construction of the Dairy Road Pumping Station while the other is for the installation of the permanent flow metering chambers.
- Approved a hotel grant tax in the amount of $5,000 through the Pennsylvania Chautauqua Foundation for the Mount Gretna Visitors Center’s summer ambassador/staff program. Although the request was granted, Commissioner Phillips noted that the hotel tax grant fund is to be used for events that bring visitors to Lebanon County who need overnight lodging. The commissioners are in the process of changing funding request guidelines since the number of organizations requesting support is up.
- Received a report from the Lebanon Valley Family YMCA concerning the county-owned Camp Rocky Creek Park. A total of 736 children attended summer camp while 241 stayed overnight. Those numbers are down compared to pre-COVID pandemic levels. YMCA CEO Phil Tipton thanked the commissioners for their support, saying the organization’s camp programs would not be possible without it.
- Approved the minutes of their Nov. 17 meeting, the treasurer’s report and various personnel transactions.
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