COAL TOWNSHIP - A $2.9 million budget and a pair of tax hikes needed to balance it were finalized during a special meeting Friday of the Coal Township commissioners.

Pay raises for township employees - police officers, street department employees and administrators - along with increases in health insurance and related fringe benefits helped cause the total budget to reach $2,930,994, up from $2,758,017 in 2013.

Property and occupation taxes were raised to generate an additional $177,418 in revenue, totaling $1,114,018. Adding in earned income and other taxes, including delinquent payments, total projected tax revenue is estimated at $2,174,018, up $224,418.

The tax increases were combined with various spending cuts to balance the township's revenue and expenses.

The commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the budget and tax levy for 2014. Voting in favor were Chairman Craig Fetterman and commissioners Bernie Rumberger, Gene Welsh and George Zalar. The fifth seat remains vacant. It will be filled by commissioner-elect Paul M. Leshinskie when he takes office during a reorganization meeting Jan. 6.

Tax impact

General fund taxes will increase from 17 mills to 20.5 mills, meaning owners will pay an additional $3.50 on each $1,000 of their properties' assessed values. The combined total property tax levy is now 22.25 mills, which includes 1 mill for fire protection, 1/2 mill for the pension fund and 1/4 mill for the Shamokin-Coal Township Public Library.

The value of 1 mill represents $1 paid on each $1,000 of assessed property value. Owners will now pay $22.25 on each $1,000 of the assessed value of their properties. For example, the owner of a home valued at $5,150 will be taxed $105.58 compared to $87.55 in 2013, and $765.68 on a home valued at $37,350 compared to $634.95 in 2013.

The occupation tax assessment will rise from 115 percent to 190 percent, increasing that bill anywhere from $37.50 to $112.50, depending on the type of job held by the taxpayer. Occupations are given an assessment figure: 50, 75, 100, 150. That figure is multiplied by the assessment, 1.9, to determine the tax owed. For someone assessed at 75 - such as a laborer or truck driver - the occupation tax owed would total $142.50, up $56.25 from 2013.

People who are retired, disabled or unemployed do not pay the occupation tax.

A 200 percent assessment for the occupation tax was approved in a preliminary tax levy. Adjustments that lowered the anticipated cost of employee medical benefits allowed commissioners to lessen the increase.

All township revenue outside of taxes - such as permits, fines and grants - is expected to drop by $76,441.

Benefit costs up

Fringe benefits are up to $738,750 from $679,000, a rise of 10 percent. Included in that total is the combined cost for employee health, prescription, dental and vision coverage - $647,500, up 10.5 percent.

Social Security is up 9 percent. Unemployment compensation dipped 25 percent, and life insurance and police disability also saw slight decreases.

Health care had first been expected to rise to $662,500; however, township commissioners decided shortly before Friday's meeting to switch insurance brokers from The Benecon Group, Lititz, to Wealth Professionals, Shamokin. The savings is estimated at $15,000, but that remains to be seen.

The switch will pull Coal Township out of the Pennsylvania Municipal Health Insurance Cooperative, an umbrella group of municipal entities. Reimbursements are paid annually to PMHIC members.

Also, Fetterman said he's unsure if, or more exactly, how much the township could owe Benecon for the early termination of their existing contract.

Township employees remain covered by Capital BlueCross.

Salaries on the rise

As in most municipalities, the cost of police protection is the most expensive line item in the budget, labor in particular.

The department's budget is set at $975,141, up from $908,759. Salaries for the 12-man police force, including the chief, total $822,091, up 3.8 percent from 2013.

The salaries represent 84 percent of the department's budget. Some of the salaries are offset by various law enforcement grants totaling $53,000.

A portion of that grant funding, $10,000, is expected to be used toward the purchase of a new Ford Interceptor, said Rob Slaby, township manager. Commissioners set aside an additional $21,600 in the budget for the police vehicle. Other funds will come from donations by Reading Anthracite, Slaby said.

The street department budget rose to $533,625 from $467,815. Department salaries total $422,810, up 5.4 percent from 2013 and totaling 79 percent of the 2014 spending plan. Employees received hourly wage increases between $0.50 and $0.80.

Wage increases for both the police and street departments are dictated by their existing union contracts. The police union contract ends Jan. 1. Negotiations on a new contract have not yet begun, Fetterman said. The contract for the street department ends Jan. 1, 2015.

Wage increases between 1 percent and 3 percent were granted to township administrators and support personnel, including the township manager ($46,237, up 1.7 percent), bookkeeper ($38,883, up 2.9 percent), code officer ($41,158, up 2.7 percent) and recycling coordinator ($20,391, up 1 percent).

Fetterman described the raises for the non-union employees, including some part-time employees, as minimal cost-of-living increases.

The wages paid to commissioners, $16,250, remain unchanged as does the $6,000 retainer fee for township solicitor Vincent Rovito. The fire chiefs' salaries were also kept at $2,950 total.

Friday's special budget meeting lasted approximately 5 minutes. No one from the public attended.