Pre­lim­i­nary county bud­get in­cludes slight tax in­crease

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael P. Rel­la­han mrel­la­han@21st-cen­tu­ry­ @Ch­escoCourtNews on Twit­ter

WEST CH­ESTER >> Ch­ester County tax­pay­ers would see their county taxes in­crease slightly if a pre­lim­i­nary bud­get un­veiled at Wed­nes­day’s com­mis­sion­ers meet­ing is adopted later this year.

Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­leased by county Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Mark Rup­sis, the owner of a home val­ued at $166,630 — the me­dian as­sessed value in the county — would pay a pro­jected tax bill of $728, a pro­posed in­crease in county prop­erty taxes of $34.33.

If the pre­lim­i­nary fig­ures sur­vive fur­ther bud­get tweak­ing be­tween now and the end of the year, Rup­sis’ plan would mark the first time in five years that the com­mis­sion­ers would be asked to ap­prove a tax hike.

“We will con­tinue to be look­ing at the bud­get in the com­ing weeks,” Rup­sis told the au­di­ence at the meet­ing, the ma­jor­ity of which were county em­ploy­ees and depart­ment heads. It is a pre­lim­i­nary bud­get at this point. We have one of the low­est tax rates in south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia. I dare say that the price of government here is quite rea­son­able.”

The three com­mis­sion­ers, who have been in­volved in the reg­u­lar bud­get prepa­ra­tion meet­ings chaired by Rup­sis and county Fi­nance Of­fice staff mem­bers held in the past sev­eral months, did not sig­nal whether they in­tended to sup­port the pro­posed in­crease. Rup­sis said it worked out to an in­crease from 4.163 mills in 2016 to 4.369 mills in 2017, an in­crease of about two-tenths of a mill, or 4.9 per­cent.

A mill is $1 for ev­ery $1,000 of a prop­erty’s as­sessed value.

The county re­mains one of the wealth­i­est and most eco­nom­i­cally sta­ble in the state, if not on the East Coast. Its per capita in­come of $84,741 is the high­est in the Delaware Val­ley and state, and its me­dian house­hold and me­dian fam­ily in­comes are both ranked among the state’s high­est, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cen­sus fig­ures. The monthly un­em­ploy­ment rate of 4.1 per­cent is also the low­est in the re­gion.

Chair­man Ter­ence Far­rell fol­lowed Rup­sis’ brief­ing on the pro­posed bud­get by thank­ing those depart­ment heads for hav­ing done their best to de­liver a work­able bud­get, as did Vice Chair­woman Kathi Coz­zone. Their col­league, Com­mis­sioner Michelle Kich­line, said that the bud­get ap­peared to main­tain the level of county ser­vices as in pre­vi­ous years with the “bare bones” of a tax in­crease “to keep Ch­ester County the best county” in the state.

The pre­lim­i­nary fig­ures show a to­tal bud­get of $548 mil­lion in op­er­at­ing and cap­i­tal ex­penses, up from $545 mil­lion in 2016. Those ex­penses in­clude the “fund­ing chal­lenges” cited by Rup­sis that in­clude costs as­so­ci­ated with public safety, health care ben­e­fits, county build­ing im­prove­ments, the ef­fort to up­date the Land­scapes plan­ning doc­u­ment in 2017, and main­tain­ing the county’s cash fund bal­ances.

The county’s net cost of health care ben­e­fits for its em­ploy­ees will in­crease from $25.2 mil­lion to $26.7 mil­lion, he said, not­ing that

such an in­crease as “lower than what you might see” in other coun­ties, due to well­ness pro­grams the county par­tic­i­pates in.

The price tag on the public safety ini­tia­tives would in­clude costs of a county owned fir­ing range ($16.5 mil­lion), train­ing cen­ter ($30 mil­lion), a new voice ra­dio sys­tem ($42 mil­lion), and com­puter aided dis­patch­ing ($4.2 mil­lion), spread out over sev­eral years. “All of those tie into the price (of ser­vices) the cit­i­zens (of the county) have told the com­mis­sion­ers it is im­por­tant” for the county to pro­vide, Rup­sis said.

Main­tain­ing the county’s es­ti­mated $30-$40 mil­lion fund bal­ance re­serves helps the county main­tain its “triple-triple” bond rat­ing, which in turns makes bor­row­ing less ex­pen­sive, as well as pro­vid­ing a rainy day fund against un­fore­seen circumstances. Rup­sis said that re­serve fund helped the county pay for hu­man ser­vice providers dur­ing the bud­get cri­sis in Harrisburg, for ex­am­ple.

Prop­erty tax rev­enues would likely de­cline in 2017 if taxes were kept neu­tral be­cause the county tax base has grown at a slower pace than re­cent years, he said. In 2014 it grew by .68 per­cent, in 2015 by .82 per­cent, and in 2016 by .87 per­cent,

The pre­lim­i­nary fig­ures show a to­tal bud­get of $548 mil­lion in op­er­at­ing and cap­i­tal ex­penses, up from $545 mil­lion in 2016.

but in 2017 he es­ti­mated that it will grow by .73 per­cent. That is far less than the 2.73 per­cent growth rate recorded in 2006, but bet­ter than the neg­a­tive growth num­bers seen af­ter the 2008 eco­nomic melt­down.

The county also an­tic­i­pates los­ing about $5 mil­lion in state funds that would go to man­aged be­hav­ioral health pro­gram costs, he said. He cau­tioned, how­ever, that ac­tual ser­vices in that field would con­tinue largely un­af­fected. “It is not go­ing to hurt hu­man ser­vices,” he said of the loss.

The pro­posed bud­get will be pre­sented at a public meet­ing held at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at the county of­fices at 313 W. Mar­ket St. in West Ch­ester.

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