KITTANNING – A lot of numbers, charts and graphs were shared last week as the Armstrong County Commissioners gave preliminary approval to the county’s 2023 budget; but perhaps, the presentation could best be summed up in five words:
“Seven years, no tax increase,” county chief administrator Aaron Poole said as he started off the budget presentation at the Nov. 17 meeting.
Pointing to the collaborative effort involving the county’s many department leaders, Poole also credited county commissioners Don Myers, Jason Renshaw and Pat Fabian.
“This is a testament to this administration,” he said while explaining that overall tax rates will remain at 19 mills once again in the new year.
Despite the good tax news, Poole’s presentation wasn’t all rose colored, as he acknowledged the challenges the county has faced with rising costs and level revenues.
He said that with expenses of $24,877,346 projected to outpace revenues of $22,768,525, the county would once again rely heavily on its fund balance to bring the spending plan into balance. An estimated $2.1 million will be needed from the fund balance in 2023.
“This budget is ultimately just a road map,” he said. “We will spend all year trying to beat these numbers.”
One number the commissioners hope to beat, or at lest contain, is the projected big jump in health insurance costs for county employees. Poole said that initial estimate shows health care premiums rising by around 35 percent, which would add $1.1 million to county expenses.
He also said that approximately 55 percent of the county budget goes toward the criminal justice system, with $7.8 million budgeted for corrections and probation, and another nearly $6 million for courts.
As those costs rise, Poole said, the county has less money to allocate for culture, recreation, and planning and development.
Approximately two-thirds of county spending goes toward employee wages, Poole noted, including benefits.
“The cost of wages has been increasing rapidly, he said. “Healthcare has been a huge challenge this year.”
Poole said work would continue on the budget until its formal adoption, which is expected at the commissioners’ Dec. 15 meeting.
The commissioners commended Poole for his work, and the ability to keep taxes from going up once again.
“You can’t get a whole lot better than that,” Myers said, pointing to seven years without a tax hike. “We’ll go for eight, nine and 10.”
Fabian also said that the county has not only raised pay for employees, but has been able to absorb the rising health insurance costs as well.
“We have not passed that cost on to our employees,” he said. “That’s not chump change.”
Myers said that despite the good tax news, the county can’t do more than its bank accounts will allow.
“We have to do what we can afford,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance.”
• The commissioners noted that after a long period of staff struggles, the county jail is nearly at full staff again. They commended warden Jessica Hicks for her work since taking on the jail’s top job.
“She goes beyond the call of duty,” Myers said.
• A proclamation declaring Nov. 17 as Mabel Pavlik Day in Armstrong County was approved on the local resident’s 100th birthday. The commissioner said that Pavlik was born near Bradys Bend in 1922 and settled in Ford City after marrying John Pavlik in 1944.
• The commissioners awarded $4,000 in Marcellus Legacy funding to the Armstrong County Fire School, which will help train firefighters through Butler County Community College.
• A three-year agreement was approved between the county and the United Steel Workers, which represents the six lieutenants at the county jail. Officials said the contract runs through 2025 and increased a 3 percent wage increase each year.