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Franklin Co. tax rate to increase

November 09, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - With a shaky national economy and Pennsylvania state revenues running below projections, Franklin County property owners will see their county real estate tax rate increase in 2009.

"There's no way around it," County Commissioner Bob Thomas said Friday. The only question between now and when a preliminary budget is unveiled Nov. 20 is how much higher taxes will be, he said.

The current real estate tax rate totals 21.15 mills, including 18.05 mills for the general fund and 3.1 mills for debt service. A mill is $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value on a property. Commissioner David Keller said the state caps taxes for the general fund at 25 mills.

Thomas said whatever the tax increase amounts to, it will not hit the cap.

"It's going to be a bitter pill, no matter what the size," Thomas said about raising the tax rate during a recession. "County government, unlike the federal government, must have a balanced budget. We cannot spend more than we take in."

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The county is hurting most in areas where state subsidies make up the bulk of funding, such as human services and the nursing home, Thomas said. The state increased Medicaid payments by 1 percent in its 2008-09 budget, well below the actual increase in health care costs, Thomas said.

About 80 percent of the clients at the county's Falling Spring Nursing and Rehabilitation Center are Medicaid patients, Thomas said. That means the county's contribution to residents' care will go up considerably, he said.

State revenues in its 2008-09 budget are running about 7 percent below projections, which means the 1 percent increase the state allocated for human services is falling short for some agencies, Keller said.

The county was the beneficiary of the building boom earlier in this decade, with real estate tax revenues increasing 3 percent to 4 percent a year, Thomas said. While those revenues might not fall next year, he does not expect robust growth.

In looking to control expenses, the county recently instituted a hiring freeze through the remainder of the year, Keller said, with the exception of positions in nursing, emergency services and corrections.

"All of the budget requests this year have been reasonable," Thomas said. "We put out a joint statement - we saw this on the horizon - asking everyone to tighten their belts."

In an Oct. 14 memorandum, the commissioners asked elected officials and department heads to scrutinize each vacancy "to evaluate whether this position is one that needs to be filled immediately or at all."

That followed an Aug. 15 memorandum asking officials "to limit purchases to essential items and to hold off on filling vacant positions as long as possible."

"Going forward in '09, savings will be targeted in the areas of energy consumption and operating expenses in general," according to a statement issued by Thomas, Keller and Commissioner Bob Ziobrowski. "Staff expansion will be limited in '09, but no layoffs are planned at this time."

About 75 cents of every local tax dollar goes to the crime, courts and corrections, and the county has no control over the crime rate, Thomas said.

The county, Keller said, has budgeted $300,000 for the extra expenses that might be entailed by three separate death penalty trials. Those cases might end in plea agreements, but the county has no way of knowing at this time, he said.

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