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Bucks County to raise property taxes, cut workforce

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.

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 voted, 2-1, Wednesday to adopt the budget and a 1.3-mill tax increase, less than half the 3-mill increase that had been 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."

There are about 120 current 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.

The budget maintains spending levels for the community college, libraries, and SEPTA, Loughery noted.

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

Marseglia voted against the tax increase and the budget, saying 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.

Marseglia 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 have been 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 in the long term, countered the chief operating officer, Brian Hessenthaler.

Several union contracts will come up for negotiation next year, with the county looking to freeze pay, a step it is taking with about 750 nonunion 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 of that, and the tax increase will add $10 million, Boscola said. Neshaminy Manor is expected to generate $2 million more in revenue than originally estimated, and $1.4 million of supplies and services were trimmed throughout the county budget, he said.

In past years, tax increases were avoided by dipping into the county's so-called rainy-day funds. Next year's budget will use $1.8 million of those funds, compared with $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, adding, "That's something we'll be looking to address. It will take action by the legislature."

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