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December 11, 2013

No decision yet on 2014 county tax rate

NEW CASTLE — The Lawrence County commissioners are undecided about raising property taxes next year.

At their meeting Tuesday, they introduced a preliminary, unbalanced version of the 2013 budget that virtually depends on the outcome of contract negotiations with six bargaining units belonging to two labor unions and representing a majority of the county employees.

The commissioners hope to adopt a balanced version of the $86,940,814 spending plan at their meeting at 10 a.m. Dec. 31.

Commissioner Dan Vogler explained the budget has “unique” and “fluid” circumstances, and “we are not able to say yet if there will be a tax increase.”

Current county taxes are 6.2635 mills — 5.789 mills for general purposes, 0.3645 for debt service and 0.11 for Federated Library System tax. The library tax is the only tax that remains steady for next year, county administrator James Gagliano said.

One mill generates about $3.5 million.

Gagliano said the budget is still $1.5 million off balance, largely because of uncertainty of wages and health care costs. He noted wages and benefits make up 71 percent of the general fund budget.

“It’s safe to say we’ve been making progress in that realm,” Vogler said of union negotiations.

The budget “is not balanced now, but we are required by law to introduce it,” he explained. “We can’t say what the final product will look like.”

Contracts for the county’s two labor unions expire Dec. 31.

Construction and General Laborers Union Local 964 has two factions — the court-related and court-appointed employees and the county jail workers, a total of 164 employees.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 2902 includes most of the other offices in the courthouse and has 48 employee members.

Karen King, county human resources director, said two weeks ago that health care is the main stumbling block in negotiations.

A negotiating meeting Dec. 2 showed little progress, according to Gagliano, and as of Tuesday, another session had not been scheduled.

Gagliano is preparing the budget with the controller and deputy controller, and said this week that health care and raises are bargaining issues.

At the Dec. 2 meeting, the county presented the unions with two health care plan choices. In one option, the county would cover 100 percent with no employee contributions in a plan called Community Blue under Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which excludes University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physicians and facilities.

The other choice would be for employees to enroll in the same plan that exists now — a Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan called Highmark PPO — which includes UPMC doctors and facilities but will be 10.5 percent more expensive next year, Gagliano explained.

“We’ve also increased the co-payment for urgent care from $10 to $50, and the co-pay for the emergency room from $25 to 75, under both plans,” he said.

The county has stipulated that if the union members want to keep the existing plan as proposed, they would have to pay the 10 percent and the county would cover the extra half-percent.

Those two options also are the choices presented to the county’s 117 non-union and management employees, he said.

However, the labor unions rejected the idea, saying they want to keep what they have at no cost to them, Gagliano said. He noted the deadline for completing the paperwork is Friday.

The county’s health care premiums totaled $4.825 million this year, including vision and dental coverage, Gagliano said.

As for raises, non-union and management employees are due to receive pay increases “of maybe 1 percent if anything at all,” Gagliano said, noting that raises, which are a bargaining issue, are undecided for everyone.

“In the best of all worlds, we’d have settlements by the end of the year, but I’m not anticipating that,” he said. “Come Dec. 31, we’ll take necessary actions to provide a balanced budget moving forward.”

Vogler said the county is still contemplating privatization of the county jail, which would involve paying an outside firm to run the jail operations and oversee the jail employees.

Last month, the prison board voted to continue negotiations with the jail bargaining unit and continue negotiations with the private company, too, Vogler said.

He added union negotiations “are not deadlocked. The proposals have been going back and forth.”

Gagliano also noted the general fund budget of $28,927,292 represents a 0.69 percent increase from 2013.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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