Commissioners group says state budget is a 'bitter pill'
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
By Laura Lynn Yohe
PUNXSUTAWNEY - Members of the Northwest County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (NWCCAP) were told Tuesday that the proposed state budget may be a "bitter pill to swallow."
"We'll all need to work together," said David Mitchell, of the Governor's Northwest Regional Office in Erie, referring to the to myriad of decisions yet to be made regarding the 2012-13 fiscal year budget for the State.
Citing the general figures of $26 to $27 billion dollars of State revenue, which does not cover the approximately $28 billion of expenses, Mitchell said the projected reductions will be a "bitter pill to swallow" as "every group will get whacked."
Praising the "very powerful organization and lobby" of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), of which the NWCCAP is a part, Mitchell said "there will be a lot of work by all of us to get to the right place".
In his District I report, Forest County Commissioner Basil Huffman expressed hope that the differences along (political) party lines would be "mellowed out" as they worked with the Department of Public Welfare concerning the "block grants" which are used to fund services for mental health.
Apprehensions about the manner in which the Commonwealth's commitment to shut down the State's hospitals is being handled has left some counties with worries about shortfalls of up to $1 million.
Huffman, and others, spoke of projected cuts in funding from the State which could leave counties and school districts with no choice but to raise property taxes in order to comply with mandated expenses.
It was noted that even if nothing were done with the state budget, requirements from legislation enacted in previous years would increase the mandated spending by $680 million, a situation which is frustrating for all involved.
A suggestion was made regarding the need to waive Federal regulations when funding for mandates is reduced. One commissioner offered that the approach for arriving at the State's budget is like someone trying to restore a vintage vehicle but not knowing what it takes to operate it.
The issue of pensions for teachers, state workers, and members of the Legislature, which can range to 75% of an individual's salary, drew the ire of one commissioner who believes a reduction in benefits for new workers is necessary to help cut costs.
Douglas E. Hill, Executive Director of the CCAP, said, of the ongoing budget talks, that "almost every line (item) is touched".
"The revenue picture is not great," said Hill. Although figures for March were higher than anticipated, overall, funding is down from this time last year.
Hill offered some optimism that projections toward the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year, which concludes on June 30th, could improve which would aid negotiations for the 2012-13 spending plan which begins on July 1st.
He noted that more legislators in all four caucuses (from the House and Senate) were understanding of local issues and cited negotiations which have "improved" from a month ago.
Efforts are being made, Hill stated, to find common ground with weekly meetings, sharing of more information and exploring additional possibilities.
He urged commissioners, and others, to speak with their State representatives and senators while the various members are home from now until after the Primary Election.
A number of other issues were aired in a round-robin style of meeting, including: Loss of local property revenue where universities and non-profit organizations hold significant parcels of land, definitions of human services which vary from county to county, distribution of impact fees from unconventional gas well drilling, care of prisoners, delivery of potable water, reassessment, sales taxes, and a number of other matters.
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