SOMERSET – Somerset County officials on Wednesday unveiled a $55.6 million budget for 2021 that doesn’t raise taxes.

“It’s a pretty tight budget,” said Rebecca Canavan, the county’s finance director. “We’ve asked all the offices to take a look and really crunch numbers – to try to be financially responsible for 2021 because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Canavan and Commissioners Gerald Walker, Colleen Dawson and Pamela Tokar-Ickes gave an overview of the county’s spending plans for 2021 in a meeting with reporters at the commissioners’ office. The budget calls for each expenditures and revenues of $55,615,832, and is balanced using operating reserves and carry-over money from the 2020 general fund.

That’s a 5.2% increase from the county’s $52.8 million 2020 budget, although the entire amount of that increase is to be used for capital projects, including the repair of county bridges in the state’s Transportation Improvement Program and upgrades to runway lighting at Somerset County Airport. Fike Bridge near Meyersdale, which collapsed in September when it was hit by a car, is expected to be repaired in 2021.

The county’s millage rate remains at 13.36 mills.

Canavan said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had a big impact on the county’s collection of tax revenues in 2020. They can’t be sure that will remain the case in 2021, she added, “because we don’t know what folks have available to them for next year. We will definitely be looking at revenues and expenditures on a daily basis to make sure we have the funds to cover the expenses.”

Dawson said the county’s elected officials and department heads were “very cognizant” during the four-month budget-making process “of what may be coming ahead in 2021. They were all very conservative, and we appreciate that on behalf of the taxpayers.”

The budget’s single biggest source of projected revenues is $24.2 million (44%) in intergovernmental funding from state and federal governments. Canavan noted that, while the amount of state and federal funding received by Somerset County has ticked upward over the past few years, from just over $15 million in 2017 to almost $23 million in 2020, that additional support is allocated for specific new grant programs and is does not represent additional support to operate existing programs.

“Projected federal and state budget reductions will likely mean status quo at best, or potentially decrease support to county-delivered mandated services,” Canavan’s overview of the budget stated.

Other sources of revenue include real estate taxes for the general fund ($22.7 million, or 41%), real estate taxes for debt service ($3.5 million, or 6%), departmental revenue from over-the-counter county services such as dog licenses ($2.9 million, or 5%) and the county’s hotel tax ($1.4 million, or 2%).

Salary and benefits for personnel represents the largest single expense category for the county, which currently employs 341 full-time and 130 part-time employees. The 2021 budget calls for $15.2 million to be spent on personal services and another $5.8 million on benefits for a total of $21.1 million, or 37.9% of the core operating budget.

Tokar-Ickes said that one of the biggest impacts on the county’s finances this year was the increasing cost of health care; the cost to the county of health care premiums has risen 36% since 2017.

The budget includes $738,767 for the district attorney’s office, but Canavan said it does not include funding for any new employees in that office; District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas has asked the commissioners on several occasions in 2020 to fund the hiring of another part-time assistant district attorney and other detectives in addition to the one full-time assistant, four part-time assistants and three detectives currently in the office.

Dawson said that Thomas is applying for grant funding from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency for another detective position.

The budget will be available for inspection by the public in the commissioners’ office on the fifth floor of the courthouse annex,

300 N. Center St., Somerset, and will soon be made available for inspection online, as well. It’s expected to be officially adopted at the Dec. 15 commissioners’ meeting. 

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

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