Routine or not, that budget amendment accounted for $4.5 million in pass through grants from the state, providing for needy children, homelessness, seniors and people with addictions. Usually unflappable, Stoffa was furious. He eventually stormed out of Council chambers, but not before chiding them, "You'll be looking in the mirror tonight."
What a difference a week can make! At a Finance Committee hearing yesterday, attended by Stoffa and most Council members, Council President Ron Angle set a more conciliatory tone. "Whatever decision we make, we're going to make it together," he said. For his part, Stoffa told Council, "I want to cooperate."
There's no denying that the County has mounting costs. In addition to the cost of a nine percent increase in staff, Budget Administrator Doran Hamann has previously laid out some other pressing fiscal concerns:
* In 2009, the County dipped into its fund balance, to the tune of $6.9 million, to balance the books.
* In the first four months of this year, the County has already had to spend $4 million of the $6 million set aside in its fund balance. Hamann is concerned that the County may have to spend between $16 and $20 million of its fund balance by the end of the year.
* Combining the swaption cost as well as some anticipated state cutbacks, Hamman warned that the County could end up spending an additional $49 million.
* Real estate tax revenue, which is pretty much the County's chief source of income, has only risen 0.223% this year.
* Health costs have increased 43%.
In a productive meeting on May 27, Council members and County Administrators discussed different areas in which the County could save money.
Called the County's crown jewel by its defenders, the County's nursing home also lost $6.29 million last year. In the first three months of 2010, it is down another $300,000. "It's a money pit," complained Angle. Council members agreed to hold off on deciding whether to sell until July, when an $18,000 study by consultant Complete Care is finished. "We're not going to wait between July and October. We're going to look at it in July," warned Angle.
In 2006, John Stoffa proposed a half mill tax increase for a "pay as you go" open space plan to generate $84 million over twenty years, and provide a source for matching funds from the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. But the consensus of Council members is to stop using real estate tax dollars for the next few years. Director of Administration John Conklin recommended that the County could devote some of its repository properties, i.e. properties that can't be sold at a tax sale, to continue pursuing open space at no cost to taxpayers.
Budget Administrator Doran Hamann told Council members that it costs $2 million annually, just to maintain the county's 1300-acre park system. "I don't think we can afford to be in the parks business," said Angle, suggesting that municipalities be asked to take some of them over or at least share in maintenance costs.
Director of Administration John Conklin told Council that Allen Township may be interested in annexing some park lands.
5% Workforce Reduction
Stoffa made clear that he opposes direct layoffs, but supports layoffs via attrition. Council member Mike Dowd noted, "There are some areas where we are not going to be able to reduce employment. As often as we can, we need to cross-train people." Council member Tom Dietrich worried about shortages in "critical services," but Stoffa answered, "We need to try it and see what happens."
Currently, the County has between 50 and 60 fully-funded positions that are vacant. Council and Administrators agreed to transfer the funding for those positions to the fund balance, giving the County a larger rainy day fund while simultaneously completing half of its 5% layoff.
Last year, Northampton County's voluntary furlough was used by 20 county employees. Director of Administration John Conklin noted that some counties have instituted a mandatory furlough program, and suggested it might work here. "There are some contractual issues, so we'd have to do it across the board. The Court would have to get on board with that." Court Administrator James Onembo, who sat in on the meeting, offered no suggestions or response.
Revenue Raising Ideas
Fiscal Affairs Director Vic Mazziotti suggested one way in which the County could increase its revenue stream. People recording deeds and mortgages could be required to pay a $10 fee for a parcel identification search, something already done by Recorder's employees at no charge. That could easily generate over $220,000, enough money to pay for 4 county workers.
When all was said and done, Council member Bruce Gilbert stated he's "very pleased with what has occurred today." Asked whether he thinks a tax hike next year can be avoided, Council President Ron Angle stated, "That has yet to be seen, but I think it's possible."
He concluded, "We're a leaner, meaner machine." But not greener.