The Berks County commissioners Thursday, Dec. 12, unanimously approved the county's 2020 budget, which will not increase taxes despite a deficit due mostly to one-time expenses.

The $579.7 million spending plan rose $2.3 million from the preliminary budget adopted in November, but that increase will be covered by reserve funds along with the rest of the $34 million deficit, said Robert Patrizio, the county's chief financial officer.

The property tax rate will remain at 7.657 mills, meaning the owner of a property assessed at $200,000 will continue to pay $1,531.

Commissioners Christian Y. Leinbach, Kevin S. Barnhardt and Mark C. Scott all voted in favor of the budget, with Scott saying he had some minor issues with the plan but not enough to reject it.

Patrizio has pointed out that the county spends most of its money on public safety and the court system. Berks spends nearly $58 million on public safety and $48 million on the court system, the total representing more than half of all county department spending.

The deficit in 2019 is mostly due to the planned redemption of bonds that Patrizio believes will alleviate the need for additional property tax increases in the future. He said looking at the budget several years in advance and making adjustments now will save taxpayers in the long run.

County chief administrative officer Ronald R. Seaman credited the budget office staffers for their diligence in making sure they arrived at the best possible plan.

Patrizio said other factors contributing to the deficit include the hiring of 18 additional correctional officers for Berks County Prison, adding a technology position to the county library system and hiring a manager to oversee facility projects.

The ability to avoid a tax hike was largely due to the positive financial performance of county pension assets, the outcome of negotiations with workers at the county-owned nursing home Berks Heim that resulted in an annual savings of nearly $2 million, and the closure of the Community Reentry Center.

Patrizio, however, warned of future challenges that could impact the budget.

That includes the financial performance of pension assets, the impact of current collective bargaining negotiations on wage and benefit growth, the potential for more unfunded mandates from the state, the unknown impact that switching to a new managed care system will have on Berks Heim, and the fact that the prison is nearing the end of its useful life more quickly than anticipated.

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