By MICHAEL P. RELLAHAN
Chester County Commissioners on Wednesday unanimously adopted a budget for 2014 that reduces expenses and keeps property tax levies at their current levels.
The $522.7 spending and taxing plan was adopted by a 2-0 vote, with commissioners’ Chairman Ryan Costello absent because of an unexpected personal issue, Vice Chairwoman Kathi Cozzone noted at the beginning of the meeting.
According to the budget, which was unveiled in October, and drew no opposition at a public meeting held last week, the county tax rate will stay the same as it is for 2013, at 4.163 mills for every $1,000 of assessed property value. That yields a median tax bill for county taxpayers of $691, on a property assessed at $165,985.
The tax rate, after remaining stable from 2010 through 2012, increased by just under one mill this year.
The new budget will reduce spending slightly among county government departments while maintaining the level of service he said county residents had come to expect. It also supports the commissioners’ goals, said county Chief Operating Officer Mark Rupsis.
Cozzone and fellow Commissioner Terence Farrell continued their praise of the effort to bring together budget that did not require additional revenue from county taxpayers.
“I am very pleased that our staff and department heads put together a budget with no tax increase,” Cozzone said, noting that in her earlier career in private industry she had worked on budgets and found the task not an easy one. “I know what a time consuming and difficult job that can be.”
Cozzone also remarked that the county had responsibilities to its citizens that it could not avoid but that it could accomplish as cost effectively as possible.
“When someone dials 911” for an emergency, she said, “or when a child is in need of assistance, it is the county that provides those services.”
Farrell, for his part, noted the county administrative staff had put together a budget package that, in addition to being responsive to taxpayers, was easy for residents to understand and transparent in its access.
“This is a process we have been through since beginning of the year, setting goals with our department heads and staff,” Farrell said. The new budget is approximately $4 million less in expenses than 2013, but does not cut essential services that residents expect.
“The times are getting better, but not so much that we can go to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue,” he said.
“This budget reflects Chester County’s commitment to provide the best services at the lowest cost to the taxpayer,” said Costello in a written statement issued after the budget’s adoption. “It demonstrates our continuing process of maintaining tight control over expenditures, while seeking new, cost-effective methods to deliver the services that are mandated, and that our residents want.”
The 2014 budget calls for $429.8 million in operating expenses and $92.9 million for its capital budget.
The total budget, both operating and capital costs, will drop from $526.9 million in 2013 to $522.7 million in 2014 under the plan proposed by Rupsis and the county’s Finance Department. Most of the money that funds the county’s work comes from local property taxes, departmental earnings, and other revenues, or federal and state grants.
The 2014 budget proposal does not contain any salary increases for the non-unionized county employees who make up the bulk of the county’s workforce. But the commissioners said that they would examine whether to provide pay raises to those employees in April, after the final costs of the 2013 year are determined.
“We are cautiously optimistic” that some salary increases can be delivered, Costello had said when the budget was unveiled in October. “But right now, we cannot commit to that. We certainly would want to do so, based on the performance of the employees we have.”
The budget includes the $200,000 cost of staffing for two new Common Pleas Court judges who will be elected this year; $12.9 million in costs to the ongoing upgrade of the county’s Department of Emergency Services voice radio system; $7.2 million in construction costs at the county’s Public Safety Training Campus; a new roof at the county Government Services center in West Goshen estimated at $2.2 million; and increased costs for technology and the Affordable Care Act.
Also included in the 2014 capital budget is $10 million in funds for open space preservation and community redevelopment projects.