Preliminary county budget includes slight tax increase
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.