EDITOR’S NOTE: On the PULSE asked the Lycoming County commissioner candidates three questions pertaining to the county deficit, the drug epidemic and local opportunities for youth. We will publish their responses to one of the questions each week leading up to Election Day.
Q. Lycoming County faces large upcoming expenses, from the levee recertification, building renovations, flood mitigation and so on. How would you help the county deal with its deficit, while also ensuring there are enough funds for these expenses?
Jack McKernan: “Fortunately, I think the county is going to – on the flood side – do OK in the grant area. We can put up matching funds through Act 13 (natural gas impact) funds and I think the levee will get worked out.
With capital improvements and buildings, I’m hopeful that we will get rid of the Executive Plaza. But I will say this, … we opened some requests for proposal for HVAC work at Third Street Plaza … and the engineer quotes are way higher than what we anticipated.
We just refinanced a bond and we’re going to get over a million dollars … the projected HVAC (for Third Street Plaza) will be $3.5 million … this is something that’s going to last the next 20 or 30 years … that’s not something we’re going to fund immediately.
I think we’re going to be able to find money on the levee, we’ve got a third of what we need on Third Street Plaza. The deficit is the thing that we need to figure out. Right now it is a tough item. It might come down to deferring other small capital projects. I do believe that we have an opportunity that we’ve got a large number of people who are qualified to retire. If they are not department-level positions, do we need to replace them or can we rework things to save on positions? We’ve got to work on reducing the number of employees, (but) the deficit is not going to be solved strictly by decreasing positions. We’ve got to do a better job of getting some economic development going. If we can increase our tax base, that will help get rid of the deficit. We’re going to continue to work on the health plan and give the wellness plan time to continue to work.”
Rick Mirabito: These are major capital improvements and typically a major capital improvement is something that will last 20 to 25 years. We usually use bond funds to pay for those types of expenses. We are trying to get grant funds for the levee recertification …
The deficits that we experience are typically due to operating expenses … From 2008 to 2015 hiring increased from 500 to 552. Why did our hiring go over 10 percent at a time when the American economy was in a recession?
My emphasis with dealing with deficits is reducing the number of employees we have (through attrition). We have to do it in a responsible way. Each full-time employee costs us about $60,000 (wages and health care) $3.12 million per year for 52 positions …
As people whose primary concern is the budget, it’s our job to make sure that we are working with department heads and row officers … to not fill positions on an automatic basis but to have people look at how work is being conducted and change what needs to be changed …
We also need to control what we pay for with general funds (property tax funds) …
We have collected $9 million in hotel tax since 2008. I don’t believe we’ve leveraged the money properly, and I don’t believe we’ve built the tourism industry. There’s a difference between a tourism event (Little League) and a tourism industry. (The industry needs to attract visitors all year round.) Tourism is the second largest industry in the state. It is the way rural Pennsylvania is going to grow. I think the current arrangement of the hotel tax has failed our community in building a tourism industry.
(The hotel tax can be used to attract tourism through the White Deer Golf Course, the Taber Museum, the annual balloon festival and the PA Wilds to develop a year-round tourism industry.)
Economic development is a way you’re going to reduce deficits but you’re not going to do that overnight. It’s not going to happen in enough time to keep us from going underwater.
Scott Metzger: “We have to fix our budget process. Our budget process is broken. We don’t start our budget process until later in the year. The Early Intervention Program report showed this.
The chief clerk should have more control. We (the commissioners) should get quarterly reports. Right now they (the commissioners) are so far down in the weeds that he (the chief clerk) can’t do his job and the department heads can’t do their jobs.
We have to look to see where we can get federal and state funding, especially with the levee …
I want to have monthly meetings with the boroughs and townships. We need to partner with them on a regular basis.
We need to figure out where we can reduce costs and regionalize to cut down on duplicate services. We cannot raise taxes. It’s not an option. Nobody should have to leave their home because they can’t afford it anymore.
I want to meet regularly with the city about how we can partner with them.
We should be working with our state representatives to get funds for local issues.
We need to watch wasteful spending.
We are not making decisions in the county and when you do not make decisions it wastes money. We have to have a strategic plan with goals. There is no strategic plan with the county right now.”
Tony Mussare: First of all, the county has a pretty strong fund balance so I’m not fearful of those operation costs. As far as the levee, our staff have done some tremendous work.
I think we’ve taken steps to get personnel to understand that our budget is important and what they choose, whether they are in a union or not, will determine our decisions in the future. Taxpayers only have so much disposable income. For those that make decent money county taxes don’t hurt them, but for people on fixed incomes, we have to be very cognizant of that.
Elliot Weiss: Let’s clarify where we stand financially. The county has raised taxes by 1.75 mills in the last four years. That’s a 36.73% increase. In dealing with increased budget expenses, I don’t believe we can go to the tax increase well.
I believe that the best way to do that is by generating additional funds through economic development. That means developing the land opposite the landfill, selling excess land around the golf course to a developer for residents and the same with the county farm. By doing that, we can generate several million dollars overall.
The other thing we have to do is cut expenses and that means moving from the Sharwell Building (which houses the county’s children and youth services) to the Third Street Plaza and move the offices from the Pine Street Plaza to that building as well.
By doing that we can save close $1 million …
By taking a strong consistent approach in terms of county costs, I think we can manage the county budget.
The candidates responses were copied verbatim, with the exception of paraphrasing for the sake of clarity and cutting excess verbiage to provide concise answers.