Public can weigh in on county budget, possible tax hike

Bucks County residents can question officials Tuesday night about next year’s county budget, which could require the first tax increase in six years.

Director of Finance David Boscola will present the preliminary $471.4 million budget, which represents a 1.7-percent increase from this year. It includes a $24.2 million shortfall that must be made up through cuts, including a possible hiring freeze; increased revenue, such as a tax hike; dipping into the rainy-day fund; or a combination of the three.

“This has been the most difficult budget in years,” Boscola has said. “Due to current economic conditions that the county has tried to weather for a number of years, the county is at a point where we are faced with some very difficult decisions.”

For five years, the tax rate has held at 21.942 mills. The owner of a home assessed at the county average of $35,800 pays $785 a year in property taxes.  

Salaries and benefits for county workers account for the largest single cost. The budget provides for a workforce of 2,628 positions, the same as this year, but there are about 115 vacancies, Boscola said. Leaving 30 jobs unfilled would save $2.6 million based on an average cost of $85,000 in wages and benefits per employee, he said.

Nonunion employees, totaling one-third of the staff, will not receive pay raises, based on the budget, and the county will undoubtedly look to extend those savings in negotiations with the unions, including the Operating Engineers and AFSCME.

"Everything is on the table,” Chief Operating Officer Brian Hessenthaler said at the budget’s Nov. 23 cunveiling. “We'll be working diligently … to see how we can address the deficit. There aren't any sacred cows."

One of the largest increases in expenditures is for debt service. The $36.1 million cost, up 11.1 percent, will pay for the new Justice Center, a federally mandated update to the emergency communication system, and open-space acquisitions.

Boscola, Hessenthaler and the three county commissioners will be at tonight’s meeting, which is scheduled for 6 in the first-floor Community Room of the County Courthouse.   

To see the 2012 preliminary budget, go to www.BucksCounty.org and click on the budget link on the home page.

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