BEDFORD - With their account more than $400,000 in the red and several pay periods left before January, Bedford County commissioners must make some tough decisions to avoid insolvency and, with it, punishing layoffs next year.
A series of simultaneous financial issues - an expensive jail bereft of state help, a lengthy dispute with the county's president judge and a property assessment that keeps taxes in place - have left Bedford County with a deficit that will almost certainly affect spending plans this month.
"We're going to have to find a way to cut next year's budget," Commissioner Chairman Kirt Morris said.
President Judge Thomas Ling's decision last month to return hundreds of thousands of county dollars has helped, Morris said, but their problems are far from over. Ling had held the money amid a financial dispute until county officials warned that he would force their hands to mass layoffs.
"Everybody thinks, 'Now that the judge gave $300,000 back, we're fine,'" Morris said. "[But] it's pretty rough."
County officials are limping to the year's end on workers' paychecks, which Morris said cost some $225,000 every two weeks.
The deficit has already hit hard in corrections: The county jail has lost 11 jobs through attrition, acting warden Sheriff Charwin Reichelderfer said, while a part-time sheriff's deputy has been laid off and officials have strained to close a second prison block.
With one less deputy available for trials and court hearings, Reichelderfer said he's relying on judges' holiday breaks and hunting schedules to help soften the need for guards before January.
"I'm banking that that will come to fruition," he said.
Meanwhile, jail supervisors seem to have sampled every cut possible: cutting overtime hours, reducing gas heat - even making a lieutenant responsible for maintenance.
"The jail needed to do stuff anyhow," Morris said, referring to the facility's substantial drain on the county coffers. "We needed to work on the jail."
In years past, the jail hosted state prisoners to raise extra cash. But a failed 2011 inspection led the state to ship the prisoners out, cutting off another county income source.
Meanwhile, the Bedford-Somerset Mental Health and Mental Retardation program, a regional system funded partly by both counties, has furloughed some 28 workers and lost 74 total positions in the last year, Human Resources Director Pam Humbert said. Morris cited the program's cuts as another means to save cash.
Perhaps most worrisome is that, with the county set to finalize its property reassessment next week, officials will be barred from any significant tax increases throughout 2013.
Reassessments in Pennsylvania must be "revenue-neutral," meaning tax rates must be lowered to balance increases in property value. That means Bedford County can't increase extra revenue next year, save for a limited allowance to raise rates by 5 percent in the most extreme circumstances.
Commissioners in the past had described such increases as borderline political suicide.
"But it's better than having the county go to the state in bankruptcy," Morris said.
As the year approaches its end, Morris said, there may be glimmers of hope: The state is set to release hundreds of thousands of dollars in youth services funding it had held for months, while cuts and understanding from creditors could eliminate the need for large-scale layoffs.