Citizens are critical of proposed budget and projected tax increase in Lancaster

by Audrey Thomasson

LANCASTER—Supervisors last week got an earful from citizens angry over a proposed 2018 fiscal year budget of $31 million that will result in a $2 million shortfall.

Public hearings took place June 22 on the proposed budget and a $0.05 increase in the real estate tax levy that will bring the tax rate up to $0.59 on every $100 of assessed value.

Supervisors sat silently as citizens railed against poor fiscal management, unfettered department overspending and proposed salary increases of up to 13% in the emergency management services department (EMS) that will result in further reductions in the county’s reserve funds, expected to drop from $3.5 million to $1.45 million.

At the same time, the Lancaster County Public School District was praised for budget cuts to save the county from even greater losses.

“You’re projecting a $2 million shortfall between revenue and expenditures,” said Jack Larson, former county finance director. He noted the fund balance at the end of the 2012 fiscal year was $5.5 million.

He said supervisors have been drawing down the fund balance since 2013 and this year ignored the advice of Treasurer Bonnie Dickson when she said it would take an 8-cent tax increase to cover projected expenses.

“You picked five cents and decided to kick that can further down the road. You need to cut costs. You’re going to have to get brutal and inflict pain,” said Larson.

He praised the schools for being fiscally conservative.

“The school budget cut costs and thank God they did. I give them credit. They have done more with less,” said Larson. Without that reduction, the county would be in worse shape, he said.

Larson said elimination of the boat tax was a half million loss to the county and the EMS and sheriff’s departments continually go over budget, which he suggested is against the law. “You expect them to take care of it,” he said.

Larson warned board members Butch Jenkins, District 1, and Wally Beauchamp, District 5, the way this budget will leave the county financially will be their legacy and the “other three (supervisors) will have to live with it.”

Howard Kyzer, a former member of the Economic Development Authority, said people in Lancaster are trying to make a living on only $10 to $15 an hour wages.

“The tax base is not growing, Lancaster has the lowest building permits of the surrounding counties, there are under 11,000 people in the last census, the school population is declining. I don’t see light industry coming in. The hospital would close if Bon Secours didn’t dump some money into it…We need to say ‘no,’” he said.

District 4 school board member Joan Gravatt said the schools need funding to buy land for new schools. “We were told that after the courthouse was paid for, schools were next. Will this tax ensure that schools will go forward? Do you have a plan for the $3 million remaining in the Capitol Improvement Budget? Where do the children fit in?” she asked.

District 5 school board chairman Dr. Robert Westbrook also asked about the required funding for new schools. He said previously supervisors tasked the school board with initiating a loan application for new schools with the U.S. Agriculture Department, “…knowing that we have no statutory authority to guarantee the expenses” for that application, including purchase of land, studies and tests required on the land and architects’ design fees in order to know what the total amount of new schools would actually be, he reminded them.

Westbrook questioned whether the proposed tax includes setting aside one cent for new schools, as he requested last April.

“It seems to me that we have a choice: We can lament a declining population, the loss of jobs, stagnant home sales and reduced hospital services. Then we can tell ourselves that we must only plan for a future that reflects a continued decline. Or we can take charge of our destiny and reverse these trends. Every study shows the number one driver of economic prosperity of any community is the quality of its schools,” continued Dr. Westbrook.

“A sound investment in the future is the first step toward renewed prosperity,” he said. It would result in attracting families who buy homes, shop and pay taxes, possibly create jobs that employ others—with the end result being home values increasing and creating more tax revenue, he said. “And the hospital will increase its services because it will have more people to serve,” he said.

Supervisor Beauchamp asked Dr. Westbrook how much new schools will cost.

Until land is acquired and architectural designs completed for that land, he could not give an accurate number, replied Dr. Westbrook.

“The fund balance is down the tank,” said Carlie Costello. “One of the hardest things to do is a reduction in force. You may have to face it or you will leave it to someone else.”

He noted some county salaries rose 4% to 7% last year. This year, the average for EMS personnel is 8.6% for full-time and over 6% for part-time while everyone else is getting a 3% increase. “Why isn’t it 3% for everyone?” Costello asked.

“You’ve got a tough job to do and you’ve got to start doing it now,” he said.

Also, Costello said he is in favor of the tax increase. “You’re going to have to do it sometime. You need it to run this county. I’ll pay it gladly. We believe in this county, we believe in our schools. We have to keep moving forward or you’re going backwards.”

Tom Smith said he is alarmed to see a $2 million shortfall. “I’m concerned we got into this position. We’re looking at new schools, looking at a new EMS building. You’re looking at another five cents in taxes,” he said.

Jack Chamberlain said he is a 20-year resident of the county. “It’s important that the schools move ahead because the schools are the future of this county,” he said.

The EMS building can be built for much less, said Chamberlain.

“Like every other taxpayer, I want to pay nothing and get everything. But that’s not the way it happens. I want some of the money to go toward schools. We’re on fixed incomes, but we will adjust,” he said.

Ace Oestreich complained that his income was down 200% since moving here in 2000. He said he built a new house, but can’t sell the old one despite the house receiving 40,000 hits online.

“My income has evaporated because of the real estate market. I have a 3,000-square-foot house I can’t sell. We’re having a tough time. I don’t see how we’re going to do it,” he said.

There isn’t a need for new schools, said Oestreich. He suggested putting new windows in the “elementary” school and using the money to bring in good teachers.

District 2 school board member Kenya Moody asked, “How do you get good teachers when you don’t have good schools? Technology is the way the world has gone.”

She said the importance of the new schools is to educate using new technology methods.

“It will cost more money to revamp (the old schools) than to build new schools,” she added. Moody noted that every other area school district has built or is building new schools. “If you don’t have a good school system, people won’t come.”

Supervisors will vote to adopt a budget and tax rate at tonight’s board of supervisors’ meeting, beginning at 7 p.m. in the County Administration Building, 8311 Mary Ball Road, Lancaster.