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Agencies warily watching budget talks

June 11, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Officials with Franklin County agencies that receive state funds are gathering all of the information they can as the Pennsylvania General Assembly considers cuts to be included in its 2009-10 budget.

Senate Bill 850 proposed deep cuts in several areas, but it was rejected by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Gov. Ed Rendell's budget proposal included $1.3 billion in new spending and met a wave of criticism from legislators concerned about a $3.2 billion deficit.

All of the budget negotiations leave local, county, regional and state agencies in limbo as they wait to hear what passes in the next several weeks.

"In my case, I'm doing a lot of praying," said Bernice Crouse, director of the Franklin County Library System.

The library system could be facing a 50 percent reduction in subsidies as well as program cuts, Crouse said.

The $430,000 reduction for the Franklin County Library System is too hefty to make up locally through private donations and the countywide tax, she said.

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Crouse said demand for library services is at an all-time high -- with people visiting branches for job skills training, English as a Second Language classes, citizenship assistance, computer training and early education for children who otherwise would have been sent to preschools.

Janet Pollard, tourism director of the Franklin County Visitors, attended a rally Wednesday in Harrisburg. There, she and others voiced support for programs they say generate revenue for Pennsylvania, the fourth most visited state in the U.S.

In 2007, tourism, the second-largest industry in Pennsylvania, generated $28 billion for the state. Tourism dollars spent in Franklin County totaled $350 million, Pollard said.

"We're fighting to keep the allocation to tourism the same. ... You stand to lose the impact of tourism when you don't invest in it," she said.

Washington Township Manager Mike Christopher is gathering news out of Harrisburg as he thinks about his municipality's recycling payments, reimbursements for sewage enforcement, liquid fuels tax revenue and Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development grants. Losing those grants means money must be generated elsewhere for programs.

"Ultimately, it gets passed back to the township residents to continue these programs," Christopher said.

Bob Thomas, chairman of the Franklin County Commissioners, said the vast majority of state funds received by the county go to human services such as mental health, mental retardation, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and children and youth.

"All proposals have included significant cuts, but what we don't know is what it's ultimately going to be," Thomas said.

Money for those mandated programs must come from somewhere, whether increased taxes or cuts in services, he said.

Area school district officials say they don't know what state subsidies to include in their own budgets. In some cases, the various proposals for them differ by several million dollars.

The wait-and-see period as the legislature nears its June 30 budget deadline is nothing new.

"The impact has more ramifications than usual," Pollard said.

Crouse said the library system might use its approximately $40,000 contingency fund if the next state aid check doesn't arrive in July because of budgetary delays.

"We've been in a holding pattern, keeping things going until we hear what the state budget is," she said.

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