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Pennsylvania counties are set to raise property-tax levies

Whatever else the new year may bring to several hundred thousand property owners in Pennsylvania, it will include bigger tax bills.

Whatever else the new year may bring to several hundred thousand property owners in Pennsylvania, it will include bigger tax bills.

In addition to the modest 2.3 percent increase approved this week in Delaware County, Bucks County is looking at its first increase in six years, and Montgomery County, confronting a $44.5 million gap, also may end up raising taxes, perhaps significantly.

Chester County, where commissioners have voted to hold the line in 2012, is the exception to a trend that local officials blame on a troubled economy, dwindling revenue, and cuts in federal and state aid.

The county portion is the smallest share of a property-tax bill, but any increases would come atop fresh increases by municipalities.

"There's incredible pressure statewide," said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association. "It's just a host of issues." Hill said the general state of the economy had put additional strains on social-service agencies and courts funded by counties.

"I would say the past several years have been difficult," said Delaware County Executive Director Marianne Grace.

In Pennsylvania's somewhat bewildering millage and assessment system, a mill - the tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value - is different in each of the 67 counties.

The Delaware County levy, which ranges from 10 percent to 25 percent of total property-tax bills, comes to $333 per $100,000 of market value. The increase would add about $8 to that total. The $324 million budget was approved Tuesday.

As elsewhere, some of the county's issues are peculiarly local - for example, escalating costs associated with Fair Acres, the county-run nursing home, and the county court system.

"We have been very, very frugal in spending," Grace said. "We think it is a prudent increase."

A Montgomery County increase could well exceed Delaware County's. At the commissioners' meeting Tuesday, county administrators said the cuts needed to close the budget gap - up to 11 percent - would be more than their departments could handle.

Commissioner James R. Matthews, 62, recently indicted on charges that he lied to a grand jury investigating corruption in county government, has steadfastly opposed those cuts and countered with a 28 percent tax increase. That would add about $46 to the current total of $165 for every $100,000 of market value.

But the final levy when the proposed $389 million budget is adopted likely will be lower. Joseph M. Hoeffel 3d, who has replaced Matthews as chairman, wants an 11 percent increase.

It is not clear how much Bucks County will raise taxes, but Brian Hessenthaler, the chief operating officer, indicated it probably would be less than 10 percent. Currently, the county portion comes to about $248 per $100,000 of market value. The budget, proposed at $471.3 million, is scheduled for adoption next Wednesday.

Nathan A. Benefield, policy research director at the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, said he was sympathetic to the counties' plight.

"Counties are having to do more with less," he said. "I won't say we oppose every tax increase," but "this is an opportune time to reassess basically everything that government does."