County leaders explain budgeting process

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Taxpayers United for Representation Now (TURN) organized a public educational meeting to explain how the county commissioners determine the county’s budget and property tax rates.

Attending the meeting, which was held Thursday evening at the Lindsey Fire Hall, were commissioners Paul Corbin, Jim McIntyre and Jeff Pisarcik, along with candidates for commissioner David Black, Ira Sunderland and Paul Bishop.

John Balliet, director of TURN, said the meeting was important because county and school taxes account for the majority of most citizens’ taxes each year, and therefore, citizens must make informed choices for local offices — such as county commissioner — which are largely overlooked.

The commissioners, each of whom has been in office for more than seven years, explained how the county determines millage rates for property taxes.

Currently, property tax rates are set a 10.75 mills on 100 percent of assessed valuation. In layman’s terms, a mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed valuation, with valuation determined by the amount properties were worth in 1972, Corbin said.

The property tax is the primary way that revenue is generated locally. That local revenue is needed to balance income and expenses.

The majority of the county’s budget is devoted to providing services, such as Children & Youth Services (CYS), Mental Health & Mental Retardation (MHMR) and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

The county is required to offer such programs by the state, and the state funds a portion of the costs.

“The tax millage rate is simply the difference between expenses, and all other forms of revenue that the county receives,” Black said, and Corbin agreed.

Those other forms of funding include funds from the state or federal governments and fees for services rendered.

Expenses are determined through communication with all county offices, Corbin said. The commissioners then meet with the office directors and “separate needs from wants,” Corbin said.

Sheriff Carl Gotwald was present at the meeting, and he said he reviews his total expenses from the last five years and each line-item in his office’s budget. Using those figures, he determines an approximate budget for the upcoming year, and he takes that budget to the commissions.

Each office presents similar approximations to the commissioners, and the commissioners then determine total county budget. After the total budget is established, the commissioners factor in all outside forms of revenue, and determine how much revenue will need to be raised locally.
The catch is the state and federal governments now send less money for services that they require the county to offer.

“They require us to offer a new service,” Pisarcik said hypothetically. “In year one, they fund 100 percent of the cost. In year two, maybe it’s down to 75 percent of that cost. By year five, they might say OK, it’s on the county now.”

Effectively, the state is forcing the county to raise taxes locally, because they require services be offered but eliminate or reduce funding for those services. The county raised taxes by 2.05 mills over the past eight years, although there was no tax last year and there is a projected slight budget surplus this year.

Balliet asked if that trend of unfunded mandates will continue.
“Is there a heavier burden coming to the county?” he said. “It’s out of your hands, but given the fiscal situation, considering the state is broke, the federal government is broke, and they are requiring you to do stuff.”

McIntyre said unfunded mandates have been a growing issue, and the state-wide County Commissioners Association is advocating mandate relief. He said there is potential legislation in the works that could lessen the county’s load.

Corbin said the county is “backed into a corner,” because the state legislature is showing little interest in mandate relief or in picking up some of the service costs.

In fact, Corbin said there was a court ruling several years ago that ordered the state to assume all costs incurred from the judicial system, but the state has not abided by that order. The county still funds the majority of court costs.

“There was a court order that said, ‘You have to do this,’” Corbin said. “The legislature thumbed their nose at it. They didn’t want to take it on. The wanted to keep it at the county level and force us to pass it on to the taxpayer.”

Corbin said such action on the part of the state is “very discouraging.”
The meeting was sparsely attended, with only 15 or so residents present. Those in attendance said they considered the meeting worthwhile, though.
“I think this definitely helps voters,” Janice Means, of Valier, said. “I’m now more educated on subjects that a lot of people are unaware of when they are voting.”

“My problem is, it is a shame that more did not attend,” Beverly Thompson, of Punxsy, said. “I learned a lot tonight. I respect all of these guys. This helped answer a lot of my questions. I’m just tickled pink that we have a balanced budget.”