CARLISLE — Another year, another property tax increase.
Cumberland County commissioners authorized the advertisement of a 3 percent property tax increase Thursday, following two weeks of speculation that a stop-gap solution to the budget problem might be found in time to eliminate the $3.1 million deficit and with it, the tax hike.
Despite pouring $60,000 into a consultant firm to do just that, commissioners Barb Cross, Jim Hertzler and Gary Eichelberger each “reluctantly” moved forward with the tax increase folded into the $218 million general fund draft budget, slated for final adoption Dec. 9.
This will be the second increase for residents in two years. The spike will add about $11 to the annual bill for a home assessed at the county’s median, $180,700.
“It should never be easy to ask for a tax increase,” said chief clerk Lawrence Thomas. “It should never be a standard response to a budget deficit.”
Thomas said the increase allows the county to address its structural deficit, implement cuts and “change the way it does business,” though the process will take several years to complete.
“2014 will be the year of retooling and reconstruction,” Thomas said. “The 3 percent increase is regrettable, but a necessary part of helping the county begin to change the way it does business.”
Hertzler further clarified the increase as a recouping of the county’s loss of about $650,000 through the abolishment of the per capita tax — a side effect of the county’s reclassification from fourth to third class in 2010.
“I agree we shouldn’t get into the practice of a real estate tax increase on a regular basis,” he said. “But a substantial portion will replace the revenue lost through the per capita tax.”
The argument of lost revenue, however, didn’t prove sufficient enough for commissioners to support the county library system’s request for a 3 percent increase in the library tax, which was also up for vote Thursday.
The increase — about 78 cents per household assessed at the county median — would generate $100,000 to cover the system’s operating expenses and sustain the reserve fund another year. County library system Executive Director Jonelle Darr told commissioners less than 24 hours earlier that an anticipated 40 percent drop in state funding will deplete the system’s reserves by 2016.
That 40 percent drop, Darr said, will occur when the state recalculates its financial obligation to the library system now that the county has moved up to third class.
“What still escapes me is that on a three-to-one basis, Cumberland County property owners are supporting the library system versus what we are receiving from the state to make up for the potential in more state funding cuts,” Hertzler said, reiterating the need for further support from the state, not taxpayers.
The library real estate tax funds around 75 percent of the system’s budget, while real estate property taxes account for 71.5 percent of the county’s total revenue in 2014.
When asked to clarify why the county’s revenue loss via reclassification was justification for a property tax increase but not a library tax increase, Cross said the two funds were completely separate and therefore, not comparable.
Cross said Thursday she “just wasn’t prepared to support” a library tax increase this year and said commissioners knew as early as the 2011 campaign season that “tough choices were ahead” for the county.
“During the four years that Cumberland County experienced no tax increase, a variety of things happened in the world,” she said. “Including a recession that we are still trying to claw our way out of. We knew, and we stayed in the race. It took courage. We knew there were going to be tough choices ahead.”
Eichelberger said the library system’s request was “very good” and showed evidence of multi-year planning on a scale that he wishes other departments would adopt.
The blame for “tough choices,” however, still rests squarely on the shoulders of commissioners, Eichelberger says.
“I feel deep down inside that if the county had aggressively addressed the emerging budget situation in recent years, we now wouldn’t be forced with having to raise both (taxes) at the same time,” he said.
He says the county’s slow progress through the Early Intervention Program, seven-month stint without a chief clerk and most of all, unwillingness to address the structural deficit in years past left commissioners “forced into making decisions at the last possible minute and unfortunately crowding out others who have been planning for several years.”
“The library folks told us the increase was simply a maintenance increase, and without that maintenance move, we are taking a step back from the level of services we have been providing,” he said. “I think it’s important that we understand that."