MERCER COUNTY – Commissioners are expected to pass a $63 million budget for next year that holds the line on taxes and still gives employees and elected officials a slight pay raise.

Fiscal Director John Logan released the proposed budget in early November, but cautioned that things may not look so rosy in coming years, as the county begins to deal with the aging and deterioration of its 255 county bridges. Logan predicted the county would need “about $100 million” over the next decade to deal with repairs.

This year’s budget calls for a $2.3 million increase in the bridge program as some projects move from the design to the construction phase. However, commissioners will likely vote today to extend the preliminary engineering studies of both the Ohl Street bridge in Greenville and the Kelly Road bridge in Hermitage for “historical and environmental clearances.” On several occasions residents have attended commissioner meetings to call for an increased pace to repair or replace those bridges. 

Chairman John Lechner has long been critical of the extended environmental studies that happen before actual work begins. “Save a snail, lose a bridge,” he has said.

The budget calls for a two percent pay increase for non-union employees and a 1.4 percent increase for elected officials. Union employees will be paid at negotiated pay rates, he said. County employees will, for the first time, have to pay a deductible as part of their health coverage. He also said “health insurance premiums are likely to increase, but we have not yet seen the major changes expected from the Affordable Care Act.”

County officials pressed Logan to build the budget without a tax increase, he said, because at 5.9 percent, Mercer County still faces higher unemployment rates than other areas of the state. 

Millage for 2015 is set at 22.4. Each mill brings in about $1.3 million, he said.

Cost savings are expected when telephone operations at the Conservation District are folded into the county’s phone system. Though there is an upfront cost of about $8,000, expenses will drop from $5,500 a year to about $1,500. The move also will provide Internet service in the “pig barn,” a building on the Munnell Run Farm property popular for holding classes and other events.

“There are no pigs in it and it’s not a barn, so I have no idea why it’s called that. It’s actually a pretty nice building. And by tying them into our county phone system and providing internet services, it will probably bring an increased use,” Lechner said.

Commissioners also will discuss:

• Seeking bids for a company to take aerial photographs of Mercer County. The information gathered will be integrated into the county’s geographic information system and will help replace outdated tax cards by reflecting the current status of properties. 

“We can see if there’s been building going on that hasn’t been taxed,” Lechner said. The data will also be useful to the county’s emergency responders, who will be able to see “all angles” of buildings when enroute to situations, he added, and also will be shared with the Mercer County Regional Planning Commission. Pictometry International Corp., of Rochester, N.Y., has said it would provide those images and related software and support for a total cost of nearly $220,000.

• A four-county proposal that will provide back-up to the existing 911 dispatch operations, at a cost of about $665,000. The counties are Mercer, Lawrence, Venango and Butler. Because the county’s current system is “near the end of its life,” Lechner said he thinks it’s important to build in redundancy.

Commissioners meet at 10 a.m. today in the assembly room in the courthouse.

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