SUNBURY —Average Northumberland County homeowners could see their property taxes increase by approximately $54 under the terms of a $91.4 million 2018 budget unveiled during a tense board of commissioners meeting which stretched well over two hours Tuesday afternoon.
Following a lengthy discussion, Republican commissioners Rick Shoch and Sam Schiccatano approved advertising the budget, to be voted on at a special meeting on Dec. 28. The budget was one of several issues which Democrat Kym Best raised multiple questions about during the meeting.
Budget Director Steve Cook said the budget is an increase over last year’s $81.2 million plan.
Included in the budget, according to Cook, is a general tax increase of 2.67 mills plus a debt services tax increase of .65 mills.
The budget is a balanced one. However, Cook said it includes proposals to borrow $3.25 million to cover “extraordinary costs” associated with the prison project and $3.1 million to cover a needed upgrade to the county’s 9-1-1 system.
Best grilled Cook throughout the meeting on figures related to the budget. Specifically, she questioned the amount of money the county has borrowed due to “extraordinary costs” associated with the prison since the former site in Sunbury burned in January 2015.
According to figures, Best said were provided to her by Cook, the county has borrowed the following to cover those costs: $14 million in 2016, $17 million in 2017, plus $32 million to cover construction costs.
“That’s $63 million,” Best said. “How much of that is gone?”
Cook said he would have to research how the funds were spent.
Prior to the fire, Cook said the county budgeted $4 million annually for the prison. That figure has increased to $7 million since the fire, particularly in light of needing to house inmates at facilities not owned by the county.
“There’s $63 million swirling around out there and now we’re looking at borrowing another $3 million or $6 million,” Best said. “That’s a lot of money. I want to know how it’s all been spent.”
She also said the county spent $6.5 million to purchase the former Northwestern Academy in Coal Township — property where the new prison is currently being built — when it could have been built at the former Moran Industries property owned by the county in Sunbury.
“Six-point-five-million dollars,” Best said. “That’s what it cost us. And now they want to borrow that amount.
“That was spending that didn’t need to be had,” she continued. “Now our taxes are going up and you need to borrow the same amount.”
Shoch said the county will be saving between $10 and $15 million by constructing at the Coal Township site rather than the Sunbury site. Schiccatano noted that the construction at either site would have taken the same amount of time.
Best asked Cook to explain how the tax increase would impact the average property owner.
According to Cook, the average appraised value of homes in Northumberland County is $16,353. At that amount, he said property owners would recognize an increase of $54.78 per year under the terms of the new budget.
In calling for the vote to advertise the budget, Shoch said the board of commissioners were “dealing with one reality and another reality.
“I don’t know how we’ll reconcile that,” he said.
“It will feel very real when you get your tax bill,” Best said in response.
The $3.1 million that’s needed to be borrowed for 9-1-1 upgrades was covered during a presentation during the meeting by 9-1-1 Coordinator Russ Fellman and Motorola Account Executive Jason Ramsay.
Since the county’s $11 million 9-1-1 system was put into service earlier this year, Fellman said municipal officers in the Shamokin-Coal Township area, as well as officers in the Sunbury-Northumberland area have discovered areas where they are unable to communicate using their radios.
Ralpho Township Police Chief Stu Appel told commissioners that, for safety reasons, his officers had to call off a foot pursuit of a suspect when they realized they were in an area where they could not use their radios to communicate.
Under the county’s previous radio system, Appel said the radios did function in that area.
Ramsay said he’s been meeting with police and the 9-1-1 center to discuss ways to rectify the problem.
To address the issue, Ramsay said the county needs to add three additional tower sites, at a cost of $3.1 million.
Ramsay said three tower sites are already in existence where the county would place its equipment. One is owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and used by Pennsylvania State Police. The county would not have to lease space on those sites.
The other two sites, where space would be leased, are owned by private communication firms.
In addition, Ramsey recommended the county update its computer software every two years. That would be covered by a cost of $2.1 million, which would be divided into annual payments over the next 10 years in which the updates would be completed.
“It is not a small amount of money,” Shoch said. “We have an $11-and-some million system… that does not work the way we need it to.
“I don’t view it as an option to leave it as an $11 million system that does not work.”
Shoch said the additional money should have been spent by the previous board of commissioners — which he was a member of — when they voted to spend the $11 million to upgrade the system.
Shoch noted that he had prominently voiced his opposition to the way the previous board was carrying out the project to upgrade the 9-1-1 system.
All three commissioners approved entering into a contract with Motorola for the upgrades.
From the upgrades to the 9-1-1 system to the costs associated with the prison project, Shoch said the expenses are “largely not of this board’s doing.
“We had a 9-1-1 system the prior board decided to buy on the cheap,” Shoch said. “We had a prison fire.”
As a result of a separate debate which took place during the meeting, the commissioners voted to amend the minutes from their November meeting.
At the suggestion of Solicitor Frank Garrigan, the commissioners amended the minutes to indicate that in lieu of purchasing flooring for buildings TrueCore Behavioral Solutions leases from the county at its property in Coal Township, the county reduced the $30,000 monthly rent by $12,000 for one month. This was accomplished through an amendment in the lease.
Best said the minutes indicated the county agreed to purchase the needed flooring, when that wasn’t the case.
She said the issue was an important one for her to address during the meeting.
“We received a benefit to our property,” Best said. “There was no paper trail for what we said or did.”