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READING, Pa. - Berks County's proposed budget for 2020 calls for no tax increase, recommending that the county maintain the current tax rate of 7.657 mills, according to Robert Patrizio, the county's chief financial officer, who presented the proposal at the commissioners' weekly meeting on Thursday.

Patrizio said the budget's total deficit for all funds is $32.6 million, which is $10.8 million higher than 2019's deficit. The increase is due primarily to the planned payoff of the county's 2013 bonds, which is a one-time expense that should "assuage the need for additional property tax in future years," Patrizio said.

If the payment of the 2013 bonds is subtracted from the $32.6-million deficit, the county is looking at a $2.9-million deficit. Patrizio is recommending that the county absorb the operating deficit with its general fund reserves.

Some budgetary factors that could affect the proposed budget include:

  • The timing of a new jail and related costs
  • The outcome of the county's current landfill litigation
  • State budget cuts and new unfunded mandates
  • Additional staff
  • The impact of managed care on Berks Heim bed utilization
  • Federal immigration policy changes

"It's good to have a capital fund balance," said Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt. 

He said some other counties "scorn" Berks for having a fund balance, however, that balance allows the county to address capital projects, such as the county bridges, which Barnhardt said have been neglected for decades, and a new jail facility.

"The actions of the commissioners in this next term are going to have a marked impact on the tax rate in this county, and the looming number-one issue is the Berks County Jail," said Commissioner Mark C. Scott, whose term is about to end. "Over time, the ongoing cost of operating that jail, including especially wages, dwarf the capital costs and the debt services of building a new facility."

Scott said numerous studies have found that privately operated jails can operate at 10-15% less than government-operated jails. He encouraged the commissioners to consider privatizing the operation of the jail.

"If we don't privatize this jail operation to some gutsy determination on the part of the commissioners," Scott added, "we will be stuck with an endless, grueling interaction with a litigious Teamsters Union that I've witnessed for 24 years."

The public is encouraged to review the proposed budget, which is available at the commissioners' office and the budget office, and on the county's website.

Public comment

The commissioners defended their decision to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Centre County to house Berks County pre-trial and post-trial detainees at the Centre County Correctional Facility. They assured the speaker – Jane Palmer – that this was not an unusual step and that detainees would be transferred to Centre County only if it's necessary.

The commissioners also defended to Palmer their decision to close the Community Reentry Center (CRC) and move the reentry program to the jail. Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach said the facility needed work on its elevators, HVAC system, and cameras, and those costs would be avoided with the decision. He added that the reentry program would remain the same.