EBENSBURG – Cambria County’s 2018 audit shows a reduction in the county’s overall debt, as well as positive progress for its reserves.
Joel Valentine, of Wessel & Co., reported during a regular commissioners’ meeting Thursday that in 2018, the county’s audit includes a fund balance of about $2.2 million.
Ideally, Cambria County should have a fund balance of $10 to $12 million, Valentine said.
In 2015, Valentine’s audit report shows a deficit of $9.2 million in the county’s reserves.
The county’s 2017 audit included a fund balance of $66,000 in the black, the first time since 2011 without a general fund deficit.
“That’s a great turnaround for the county as a whole,” he said.
The audit also showed that for every dollar Cambria County owed in 2018, it had $1.47 to pay out. In 2017, the county had $1.29 for every dollar it owed, compared to the 85-cents-to-$1 ratio found in a 2015 audit.
“The county has drastically improved that ratio to a favorable position,” Valentine said.
The county’s overall debt dipped to about $42 million in 2018, the audit shows, from nearly $57 million in 2015. The county’s overall debt will be less than $40 million by the end of the year, according to Chief Clerk Michael Gelles.
County Controller Ed Cernic Jr. noted that the county was able to reduce taxes by a half-mill in 2017 and 2018 while paying down its debt.
Commissioner Mark Wissinger, the lone Republican on the board, voted against a 2016 tax increase of 5 mills approved by his fellow commissioners, Tom Chernisky and William “B.J.” Smith.
However, Wissinger credited the county’s ability to complete capital projects while addressing its general fund and overall debt.
“I think we’re making headway,” he said. “In my memory, I think this is one of the best audit reports I’ve seen.”
Smith credited the county departments for working together with the commissioners to keep a lean budget and make tough cuts.
“The three of us didn’t do this by ourselves,” Smith said. “We made some hard decisions, and it’s paying off.”
Chernisky said improving the county’s financial state has “been all hands on deck.”
“The 2018 audit continues the good news for the finances of Cambria County,” he said.
After reviewing its audit report, the commissioners also approved real estate tax refund payments to Cambria Cogen Co. for 2018 and 2019 in response to a tax appeal filed in 2017.
That appeal was settled in April, and, on Thursday, the commissioners unanimously approved refunds of $27,992.50 and $23,892.69 for 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Cambria Cogen Co. sought reductions for Cambria Cogen near Ebensburg and its Colver power station, which prompted the county to hire an appraiser in reaching a settlement in conjunction with Central Cambria School District and Cambria Township.
Prior to the company’s tax appeal, Cambria Cogen had an assessed value of $1.97 million and a market value of $7.3 million. It’s been adjusted to an assessed value of $1.2 million and a market value of $4.6 million.
The Colver power station previously had an assessed value of $1.7 million and a market value of about $6.3 million, and now has an assessed value of $1.2 million and a market value of $4.7 million.
Texas-based Northern Star Generation, which operates both plants, recently acknowledged plans to shut down the Cambria Cogen plant until at least 2021, citing the difficult market the plant and others like it are facing.
Northern Star officials said low energy prices, an expiring contract and competition with Marcellus Shale led to the decision to “mothball” Cambria Cogen on June 7.
The Rubisch Road facility employed approximately 30 people in January and eight remained at the time of its closure, which shifted to the Colver waste coal plant.
Northern Star is still operating the 105-megawatt Colver power plant through a power purchase agreement with Penelec.
The company’s lease for Colver is up in September of next year.