The Southern Berks News

Taxes steady in budget proposal

- By Karen Shuey kshuey@readingeag­

Berks County unveiled a 2022 budget proposal Thursday that would hold the line on taxes.

Despite the financial strain of the COVID pandemic, the nearly $576 million plan manages to avoid a property tax increase and program cuts.

Budget chief Robert Patrizio outlined the proposed spending plan during the commission­ers’ weekly board meeting, kicking off a public review period. He said the budget specifical­ly meets the directive to present a budget without a tax increase while balancing continued support for services and financial stability.

“I believe this budget achieves these goals,” he said.

The property tax rate will remain at 7.657 mills, meaning the owner of a property assessed at $100,000 will continue to pay $765. The last time the county

raised taxes was in 2018 to help cover recurring operating expenses.

The proposed budget represents a $9 million increase from the almost $567 million 2021 plan.

The budget also includes a $6.8 million deficit that will be covered with reserve funds. And Patrizio said there will be almost no reduction in services as a result of the deficit.

Patrizio said the plan limits the growth of new discretion­ary spending; limits the number of new county workers; does not add any new debt; prioritize­s infrastruc­ture and technology upgrades; and funds new facility needs with reserves.

He added that the county will continue to maintain certain commitment­s. Those include $3.7 million for the county park system, $3.6 million for the library system, $3.25 million for Reading Area Community College and $1.4 million for the Council on Chemical Abuse.

Patrizio pointed out that the county will spend most of its money on public safety and the court system. The county spends nearly $61 million on public safety and $49 million on the court system, a combined total that represents more than 60% of all county department spending.

Patrizio highlighte­d a few of the factors that impact the budget:

• He said Berks Heim, the county-owned nursing home, has been hit hard by the pandemic. State quarantine requiremen­ts resulted in a severe decline in average monthly occupancy from 404 before the health crisis arrived.

“We thought we would end the year with around 365 residents, but we are currently at about 308,” he said. “The delta variant really had a profound impact on our ability to grow the number of residents primarily because of safety requiremen­ts. We just had to be really careful admitting a lot of people to make sure there was enough room to quarantine those who needed to be.”

Patrizio said the county has managed to absorb those losses by temporaril­y cutting positions at the facility as a result of the smaller population. But, he added, those positions will need to be restored as the population continues to rise.

• He said the decision to create a third county campus in Mohnton to provide storage space and room to provide a variety of services to the community will have an immediate impact on the budget but should end up saving the money in the long run.

The commission­ers voted unanimousl­y last month to lease the nearly 105,000 square feet of office and warehouse space along East Wyomissing Avenue from the Berks County Nonprofit Developmen­t Corporatio­n. The agreement will allow the county to lock in a 30-year fixed lease.

Patrizio said the agreement will add $550,000 to its rent costs each year. But added that the campus gives the county a cost-effective option to consolidat­e several county services in the future that are currently housed in leased locations throughout the county.

“The great thing about this location is that rent is fixed for the next 30 years,” he said. “We have not factored in any savings yet from that potential consolidat­ion because that plan has not fully come to fruition. But there will be some potential for savings.”

• He pointed out the budget proposal does not include any of the nearly $82 million the county was allotted through the American Rescue Plan.

The county is still determinin­g how much of the federal money should be spent directly by the county, and then how much should be doled out to other organizati­ons and groups.

“I would expect by the end of 2022 we will have a very good plan and understand­ing on where we want to make these legacy investment­s,” Patrizio said.

The commission­ers are scheduled to adopt the final budget at their Dec. 16 meeting.

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