No growth means no raises for Chester Co. workers

CHESTER -- For the second consecutive year, Chester County's population dropped, and this year county employees won't be getting a raise because of it.

Lost residents can mean lost taxes, and that's forcing local leaders to grapple with spending cuts, including eliminating raises for county workers.

"They've got us hemmed up," said County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey, who said he didn't see how leaders could give raises to county employees like they did last year. "We can't do anything."

State law ties property taxes to the previous year's inflation rate. That means Chester County taxes may not rise more than 2.8 percent this year. Last year, the rate was 3.2 percent.

But the law also allows local governments to raise taxes more if their communities are growing. The tax increase can match the growth rate.

That's good news for counties such as York, which grew by more than 10,000 people last year, according to estimates released last week from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But places such as Chester County -- which estimates show lost 125 people last year -- can't raise taxes because their population is shrinking. Sixteen counties across the state saw a negative change in their population last year, according to the Census figures.

Part of the problem with this year's budget, Roddey said, is the skyrocketing cost of fuel.

"Everything else goes up with it," he said of fuel prices. "Anything you've got delivered to you, anything else, the cost goes up."

Leaders know they'll have to cut some spending, although they're not sure where.

"When you don't have enough money to do what you gotta do, you just, you have to do without," said Chester County Councilman Alex Oliphant. "If there's any positions you can eliminate ... all those things should be on the table."

Despite the crimped financial situation, Oliphant said the county has a healthy savings fund that can be dipped into if needed.

As for the future, county leaders see hope in companies such as Poly-America, which is expected to bring at least 400 jobs to the county. Three proposed housing projects also could bring thousands of new homes to the area.

With 6,600 acres on both sides of Interstate 77, the largest potential project is Montrose Plantation, which could bring as many as 15,000 homes over 20 years.

Although the current climate is bleak, leaders say the growth will come.

"We're gonna do without for awhile," Oliphant said. "The main thing is that we keep fully funding economic development, and it's gonna hit. And Chester's gonna grow and change ... It's just too slow in coming. We just have to keep working at it."