State budget impasse may force Centre County to dip into reserves for children and youth funding

Commissioners Mark Higgins, left, Michael Pipe, and Steve Dershem, right, discussed budget issues at their meeting Tuesday.
Commissioners Mark Higgins, left, Michael Pipe, and Steve Dershem, right, discussed budget issues at their meeting Tuesday. Centre Daily Times, file

County commissioners approved a largely unchanged tentative county budget Tuesday, however, the lack of funding for Children and Youth Services may take a large chunk of county reserves.

Budget totals haven’t changed since the budget was initially approved by the previous Board of Commissioners in December, acting County Administrator Denise Elbell said. The budget makes up about $75.4 million with $3.5 million toward capital reserve for a total of about $78.9 million.

The newly elected board had the opportunity to reopen the budget, having 45 days to make any changes. The tentative budget will be on display for the next nine days, Elbell said, with final approval slated for Feb. 9.

Changes to the budget were minor, she said, and the county can utilize contingency funds if additional funds are needed.

“There are some key decisions that we’ll have to make throughout the year,” Chairman Michael Pipe said. “To make them within the first 26 days in office, we didn’t feel like we could make those decisions in an adequate amount of time.”

The county still hasn’t received reimbursement for funding CYS through its 2014-15 fiscal year fourth quarter, Elbell said, which runs April through June. Commissioners attributed the lack of funding to a “rebalancing” initiative by the state.

According to Pipe, the state typically reimburses CYS on a quarterly basis. While scrambling to figure out how to get a budget passed within certain dollar limits, the idea of the rebalancing was coined.

Essentially, he said, the state is a quarter behind in providing CYS reimbursements, basically skipping over the fourth quarter payments in a budgeting tactic. The county has only received $1.1 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year so far.

The county typically fronts funds to CYS, Elbell said, and is then reimbursed by the state. Allocation for the fourth quarter generally comes over the following three quarters.

Normal state funding for CYS could run between $1 million and $2.5 million, she said. Right now, the county is owed more than $4 million.

According to Pipe, the county recently received $1.1 million in CYS funding from the state, leaving a $3 million hole. Unassigned reserve funds are about $6 million, Elbell said.

“We were able to get through this budget impasse now because of our fund balance,” Elbell said. “That fund balance may be reduced by $3 million, which will affect us this year. Those are significant dollars to us.”

The county still holds a $10 million Tax and Revenue Anticipation Note, Commissioner Steve Dershem said, which the county has yet to draw down on.

Pipe called the situation “frustrating,” saying 20 new pieces of legislation have recently come out of Harrisburg affecting how CYS operates in relation to clients.

“They’re not paying us and they’re asking us to do more,” he said. “That’s the biggest frustration in this whole discussion.”

At a statewide level, County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania is trying to fight the rebalancing, he said, saying it would hopefully be a one-time 2015 fiscal issue that will be rectified next year. Pipe could not say if the state has plans to back pay the missing quarter or if counties were simply on their own.

“We have a lot of people in county government and the public scratching their heads when they see the state is delaying payment for three months for services they need to provide,” he said.

In other business, commissioners approved adding $11,250 per year for the next 10 years to help fund renovations for the future Centre Region senior center.

According to Centre Region Parks and Recreations Director Ron Woodhead, cost projections made last year for the renovations turned out to be too low when contractor bids were revealed last week.

An interim senior center occupies a 3,200-square-foot space in the Nittany Mall. Woodhead said the department seeks to move the center to a larger 7,000-square-foot space by May 1. The Centre Region Council of Governments approved an additional $10,000 per year in funding Monday night.

Commissioners approved adding the $11,250 through the county’s contingency fund. The amount breaks down to $5,000 in funding previously discussed by Woodhead and the commissioners and $6,250 in additional funding to cover the new expenses.

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews