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Northampton County in a 'financial mess'

By Joe McDonald, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Aug 14 2014 09:07:14 PM CDT
Updated On: Aug 15 2014 11:39:02 AM CDT

EASTON, Pa. -

Northampton County is in a "financial mess" and property owners could see a 1.5 mill tax hike next year, county Executive John Brown said Thursday.

Brown, in an interview, said he's in the early stages of pulling together a preliminary budget for 2014-15, to be presented in October.

With Northampton County quickly burning through its reserve fund at a yearly $18 million clip, Brown said he’s looking to cut waste and “bad habits” in the county’s programs and 800 employees.

One item in his “bad habits” category that has caught his attention is the “call out,” or workers calling out sick, numbers at Gracedale, the county’s nursing home.

Brown said “call outs” at Gracedale, which operates shifts around the clock, seven days a week, average about 700 times a month, costing the county $2.5 million.

Gracedale's "call out" numbers are twice what other nursing homes normally encounter.

Workers called in to fill those jobs are paid overtime, at time and a half, he said.

The county has been steadily spending down its reserves for years, Brown said, and the county will need to find at least $7 million to pump into next year’s reserve to keep it at the required $18 million minimum.

On top of that, rising personnel expenditures will cost another $4 million, meaning the county will need to find a total of $11 million, possibly through a combination of cuts in programs or jobs, elimination of waste and redundancies and tax hikes.

The county spends about $10 million a month, mostly in "pass through" money from the state that funds human services, Brown said.

As a rule of thumb, Brown said budget planners normally like to have six-month reserves on hand, which would translate into a $60 million reserve for Northampton County.

The county's reserves have dwindled to about a third of that.

There are a number of unknowns at this point in the budget process because the county has ongoing negotiations with four of its 11 unions.

Another dark cloud on the horizon is the penalty the county would be required to pay, estimated at $2.9 million beginning in 2018 and rising, if it does not modify the health benefits package it offers to meet the requirements in Obamacare, which essentially requires county workers to pay more of their money for coverage.

If the changes are not made, then the stiff penalties will be imposed on the county.