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BY JONAS BEALS
Most Westmoreland County residents will soon pay higher real-estate taxes.
County supervisors voted 4-1 Friday to approve a budget that includes a 2-cent tax-rate increase in the coming fiscal year. The average homeowner could see an annual bill that is $20 to $30 higher.
Currently, real estate is taxed at 46 cents per $100 of assessed value. The new rate has been set at 48 cents. Each penny on the tax rate represents $247,995 of revenue for the county.
Supervisors have decided to apply the entire $495,990 in additional revenue to the county's public schools.
That revenue increase will, in part, offset a state-mandated increase in employees' retirement contributions. The hope is that the revenue will boost teacher salaries enough to soften the blow to their take-home pay.
In addition to the real-estate tax increase, there was also a 2-cent increase to the mobile-home personal property tax rate and a 2-cent increase to the public-utilities tax rate. Both rates are locked to the real-estate levy, and will also be 48 cents.
Supervisor Rosemary Mahan said that the board "did not get a lot of opposition" to the tax-rate increases. But she had her own reasons to oppose the proposed budget, and was the sole member of the board to vote against it.
"My concern is that both the teachers and the county personnel have not been paid on their scales," she said.
Mahan explained that even with the increased revenue, most county employees have not received the expected salary increases that come with time on the job. That has created a situation where new employees make the same salary as workers who have been on the job for years.
County Administrator Norm Risavi agreed that the salary situation is difficult for county agencies and the schools, but said that it's an unfortunate result of the national recession and years of budget cuts.
"It's not the optimal budget, but I don't think we're in any kind of unique position here," Risavi said.
He said that, even with the 5 percent raise, most county employees will see an overall reduction in their take-home pay due to the state's changes in retirement dues.
"Fortunately," Risavi said, "we have not had to lay anyone off."
The budget contains good news for the county's volunteer fire and rescue departments. Each department will get an annual funding increase of $5,000. Supervisors also decided to increase their contribution to the free health clinic to $20,000.
Mahan is willing to accept the outcome of this year's budget process, even if she thinks the board could have gone further to improve employees' salaries.
"There were no hard feelings," she said. "I think we worked together to try and get the best budget possible."
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036