EBENSBURG – The Cambria County Board of Commissioners adopted its 2019 budget unanimously Thursday during its last meeting of the year, authorizing a spending plan that includes no change in real estate taxes.
Prior to adopting the $60 million general fund budget, Commissioners Mark Wissinger and William "B.J." Smith voted to approve a remote participation policy that allowed President Commissioner Tom Chernisky – who could not attend the meeting due to a medical procedure – to participate in voting.
The 2019 budget reflects a decrease of about 5 percent from last year's amended general fund budget, which officials attribute to capital improvements that created savings in county utility bills this year.
The commissioners authorized taking out a short-term $3 million loan last year for those costs, along with a plan to pay off the debt within 13 months. The loan was used for capital improvement projects the 2018 budget could not absorb, including hot water heaters and roof repairs at the Cambria County Prison, as well as HVAC units and a new roof at the county’s human services building on Candlelight Drive in Ebensburg.
The 2019 budget includes $500,000 for capital improvements, an amount typically set aside for this line item in previous years.
The budget also includes an 8-percent increase for hospitalization in county employees' health care coverage, along with wage increases of 2.25 to 2.5 percent under union contracts.
About 41 percent of the county's total expenditures are for human services; 26 percent for administration; nearly 14 percent for judicial costs; about 9 percent for public safety; and 5.5 percent for debt service.
The county receives nearly 58 percent of its revenues from intergovernmental funds; about 23 percent from real estate taxes; nearly 10 percent from interest and investments; and about 9 percent from charges for services.
Earlier this year, the county’s 2017 audit showed a $2.3 million general fund deficit had been paid off and a fund balance of more than $800,000 had been established.
At the commissioners' State of the County address Tuesday, Chernisky said the county has reduced its overall debt from $56 million in 2016 to about $42 million by the end of the year – a decrease of 25 percent.
The 2019 budget keeps millage at 33.5 mills, 27.5 of which are used for general purposes. Four of those mills go toward the county’s debt service, one mill is dedicated to Pennsylvania Highlands Community College and the county’s libraries, and its parks and playgrounds each receive a half-mill.
The commissioners also unanimously approved a proposal from First National Bank to purchase its 2019 tax and revenue anticipation note for $10 million at a rate of 2.59 percent.
"(The interest rate) is higher than last year, but it's still a pretty competitive rate," Wissinger noted.
Anticipation loans are taken out at the beginning of every year and repaid as real estate tax revenues are received.
The county has been able to pay off its annual tax anticipation note early for the past two years, saving approximately $100,000 in interest annually.
When the current board of commissioners entered office in 2016, a split vote resulted in amending the budget for that year and raising taxes by 5 mills. At the time, Chernisky and Smith, along with County Controller Ed Cernic Jr., said the move was necessary to ensure that county government stayed open for business and erase an $8.6 million deficit.
The commissioners unanimously voted in 2017 and 2018 to reduce taxes by a half-mill each year, saving the average taxpayer $6 each of those years, according to county data.