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Bucks to raise taxes, cut workforce nearly 9 percent

Tax increase amounts to $45 for home with average assessment.

Bucks County will raise property taxes for the first time in six years and cut its workforce by nearly 9 percent to balance next year's $461.7 million budget.

The county commissioners on Wednesday adopted the budget and a 1.3-mill tax increase, less than half the 3-mill increase projected last month. The owner of a house with the county's average assessment of $35,900 will pay an additional $45, for a total of $835.

To limit the tax increase, the county will reduce its staff of 2,628 workers by about 230, through attrition, a hiring freeze, and possibly an early retirement program, Commissioner Rob Loughery said. The next option would be layoffs, he said.

"We'll know better at the end of the first quarter whether we're on target or will need layoffs," said Loughery, who voted with fellow Republican Charles Martin for the budget and the tax increase. "By the end of the year, we'll be down to about 2,400 employees.

"We're headed for a 12 percent reduction by 2013," he said.

There already are about 120 vacancies that won't be filled, Finance Director David Boscola said.

"The public has to accept that some of the services they're accustomed to will take a little longer," Martin said.

Democratic Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia said there "probably will be layoffs" of non-essential workers. Staffing at the prison and for social services, such as Neshaminy Manor nursing home, cannot be cut below state- and federally mandated levels.

Marseglia voted against the tax increase and the budget, explaining that other cuts and savings could have been made. The prison could save money by reducing the number of state and mentally ill inmates and those being held for probation or parole violations or bail hearings, she said.

"These are procedural issues, not matters of public safety," she said.

She also would have accepted an offer by the union representing 150 employees to cut its raise next year from 4 percent to 3 percent. In exchange, the contract would be extended two years, with no raise in 2013 and a 2 percent increase in 2014, she said.

Those concessions would benefit the county next year, but not long term, Chief Operating Officer Brian Hessenthaler said.

Several union contracts will come up for negotiation next year, with the county looking to freeze pay as it is doing for about 750 non-union employees, Loughery said. "We'll also be looking at work rules and overtime" in the negotiations, he said.

To balance the budget, the county had to cover a $24.3 million shortfall. The staff cuts will provide about $6 million, and the tax increase will add $10 million, Boscola said. Neshaminy Manor will provide $2 million more than original estimates, and $1.4 million of supplies and services were trimmed, he said.

In past years, tax increases have been avoided by using rainy-day funds. Next year's budget will use $1.8 million in those funds, compared to $8.1 million this year.

The remaining $3 million needed to cover the shortfall will come from an adjustment in the calculation for funding the pension plan, Boscola said. There will  be no impact on the fund, which will still be a defined benefit, Hessenthaler said.

"That's something we'll be looking to address," Hessenthaler said. "It will take action by the legislature."

Taxpayers loudly criticized the cost of the pension fund at a public meeting on the budget earlier this month.

The interest rate is dictated by state Act 96, Loughery said. "We have to give it."