READING — The Berks County commissioners Thursday, Nov. 21, unveiled a 2020 budget proposal that would hold the line on taxes despite a deficit due to one-time expenses.
Budget chief Robert Patrizio outlined the proposed $577 million spending plan during the weekly board meeting, kicking off a public review period. He said the budget specifically achieves the directive to present a budget without a tax increase while balancing continued support for core services and long-term financial stability.
"We believe the budget is responsive to the needs of county taxpayers and the commissioners' goal of a responsible budget that does not place an undue tax burden upon the citizens of Berks County," he said. "This budget is the product of a highly collaborative effort with the commissioners and each county department."
Patrizio said the plan limits the growth of new discretionary spending, limits the number of new county workers, does not add any new debt, prioritizes infrastructure and technology upgrades and funds one-time capital expenditures with reserves.
The proposal includes a property tax rate of 7.657 mills. That means the owner of a property assessed at $200,000 would continue to pay $1,531.
Patrizio said the ability to not raise taxes is largely due to a number of favorable outcomes. He cited the positive financial performance of county pension assets, the outcome of negotiations with Berks Heim workers resulting in an annual cumulative savings of nearly $2 million and the closure of the Community Reentry Center.
While the proposed budget does include a $32.6 million deficit, Patrizio said the shortfall is primarily due to the planned redemption of bonds that he believes will alleviate the need for additional property tax increases in the future. He said the other factors contributing to the deficit include the hiring of 18 additional correctional officers, adding a technology position to the county library system and hiring a manager to oversee facility projects.
The plan also includes $239,000 in new discretionary spending for the Rebuilding Reentrants and Reading program offered through Berks Connections/Pretrial Services.
"I don't like to spend money as everyone knows — but this is a very impressive program," Patrizio said to room full of laughter. "I encourage taxpayers to learn more about the program because when they do they will understand why the board is really supportive of this effort."
Patrizio said the county will continue to maintain certain commitments. Those include $300,000 for the Greater Reading Economic Partnership, $3.25 million for Reading Area Community College, $3.3 million for the library system, $3.6 million for the county park system and $1.7 million for the Council on Chemical Abuse.
He pointed out that the county spends most of its money on public safety and the court system. The county spends nearly $58 million on public safety and $48 million on the court system — a combined total that represents more than 50 percent of all county department spending.
Commissioners Kevin S. Barnhardt, Mark C. Scott and Christian Y. Leinbach said the presentation by Patrizio shows that his team in the budget office has done its best to put together a responsible spending plan that highlights county priorities.
But Patrizio warned there are a number of challenges on the horizon that could negatively impact the budget.
Those challenges include 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 switching to a new managed care system will have on the county-owned nursing home and the fact that the county prison is nearing the end of its useful life more quickly than anticipated.
The board agreed that the prison will be the single biggest undertaking on that list.
The commissioners have been mulling the future of the prison for some time. Faced with significant structural problems in the oldest portion of the prison and the continually rising cost of construction, a consultant group hired to study the issue warned them this spring that time is not on their side. That group estimated the prison will cost the county nearly $200 million.
"Moving forward, the issue for this county to get our arms around and to explain to the public is the justification for the new jail," Barnhardt said. "It's a huge cost and a huge factor when it comes to our public safety. We really have to sell this to the people over the next several years."
Scott, who is leaving his post at the end of the year after 24 years of service, urged his colleagues to keep an open mind when it comes to the prison. He said he's convinced privatizing the facility would result in potential savings to taxpayers that are too tempting to ignore.
"Unfortunately, it has become very much apparent in recent years there aren't a lot of people who care about running government efficiently," he said. "They talk about it, but they don't do it. Until we do something dramatic to set back the outrageous circumstances under which we run the jail, we're going to be raising taxes substantially."
The commissioners are scheduled to adopt the budget at their Dec. 12 meeting.