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Proposed Franklin County budget packs tax hike

December 10, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Franklin County residents whose homes have a market value of $100,000 could end up paying about $60 more in property taxes next year.

The Franklin County Board of Commissioners Thursday unveiled its preliminary $92.5 million 2005 budget, an appropriation nearly $6 million higher than this year's.

If the budget wins final approval Dec. 30, it will require another 4 mills in taxes to finance. Included are 2.25 mills to repay over 20 years a $39 million bond issue that the commissioners floated this year.

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Some $30 million of the total goes to build a replacement jail for the overcrowded Franklin County Prison on Franklin Farm Lane, $5 million for more farmland preservation and $4 million to upgrade 30-year-old equipment in the county's 911 communications center.

The rest of the tax hike, 1.75 mills, goes to the county's general operating budget, which increases to $26.8 million. This year's operating budget is $23.6.

One mill, which represents $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, will net $1.1 million in revenue next year. This year a mill brings in $1.08 million. The value of a mill has been increasing 2.0 percent to 2.5 percent annually, the commissioners said.

About 74 cents of every local tax dollar will be spent on crimes, courts and corrections next year, they said.

Teresa Beckner, county fiscal director, said the new budget showed a deficit of $3 million after all department heads made their original requests. Included were requests for 32 new staff positions. The commissioners cut the number to seven.

Among the seven are three full-time corrections officers, a lieutenant and a counselor at the prison, another sheriff's deputy and a clerk in the tax assessment office.

Commissioners Chairman G. Warren Elliott credited staffers in the human resources department for negotiating with Blue Cross officials to cut a proposed increase in worker health insurance premiums from 58 percent to 17 percent. Employees will share more of the costs, he said.

Prison Warden John Wetzel said the county is considering two sites to build its new 440-bed prison. One is on county-owned land at Letterkenny Army Depot and the other is on Franklin Farm Lane near the existing Franklin County Prison.

The prison, which was built for 200 beds, had an inmate population Thursday of 360, Wetzel said. Thirty inmates are being held in other facilities at the rate of $60 a day.

"That comes to $1,800 a day," Wetzel said.

He originally asked for 13 new staffers but said he will live with the five he is getting.

"We'll get through it," he said.

County Planning Director Philip Tarquino said the $5 million the budget appropriates for the county's farmland preservation effort could swell to $15 million over the next four years through matching state and federal grants.

The county expects to double the 7,223 acres already designated for the Agricultural Land Preservation Program in the next four years, Elliott said. So far, 52 farms are in the program, which pays landowners a price per acre for the agricultural conservation easements which keep the land in agriculture.

Elliott cautioned that the rising price of land in the county could affect the easement program.

In 2004, the county coroner's office investigated more than 560 deaths, the district attorney's office prosecuted more than 2,000 new adult criminal cases, 1,500 passports were issued by the Prothonotary's office and the Register of Wills took in more than $7 million in inheritance taxes, according to a brief summation of the budget.

Critics of the budget will say either that it doesn't go far enough to take care of the county's needs or feel that the $6 million increase is excessive, Elliot said.

He said the commissioners won't hear objections from those who visit or work in the prison or those concerned with the rapid loss of farmland to developers in the county.

Current overcrowded prison conditions present "a stressful and less-than-safe environment," Elliott said.

Franklin County has had the lowest county taxes of all 67 in the state, he said.

"This is a realistic budget that addresses the issues the county is facing in a conservative manner," he said.

The preliminary budget announced Thursday can be seen in the commissioners office at 14 N. Main St.

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