WILKES-BARRE – How much more city residents will pay in 2013 real estate taxes is still a mystery, even though a city budget must be adopted within five days.
City Council members said they want to see a budget being revised by Mayor Tom Leighton before scheduling a meeting to vote on it.
Council President Mike Merritt said Wednesday that council was waiting for a revised document to see if Leighton has accepted any of the five-member panel's suggestions. He said council could meet as early as Friday to vote on the budget.
Leighton said he was going to have the revised budget to council members by the end of business Wednesday.
We have to see the budget before we can vote on it, Merritt said. We need time to review it and then we will schedule a meeting. We have until Monday.
Merritt said he expects to pick up his copy this morning.
Leighton would not disclose revisions. Let council tell you what they cut out, he said.
The mayor also would not say when the 11 firefighters furloughed earlier this month would be recalled, if at all.
Leighton's last 2013 proposal for the $45.8 million budget calls for a 25-mill or 26 percent hike in the real estate tax, along with increased fees for many city services and layoffs.
To reduce the tax hike, Councilman Tony George said he proposed several cuts. George wanted to eliminate four line chief positions in the fire department, then rehire them at another level to get more firefighters on the street working the fires.
George also proposed cuts in the city administration – cuts he said would save $200,000 to $300,000, or several mills of tax.
I'm anxious to see if (the administration) accepted any of our recommendations at all, George said.
George said council recommended eliminating membership to the Pennsylvania League of Municipalities and cutting out travel by city employees.
We've asked for a lot of cuts, he said. We need to get our firefighters back as well – 53 are not enough in the department.
We have two people working in IT (informational technology), George said. The director makes $71,000 and supervises one person. I don't think we need two people in that department.
Merritt and George said they want to see a revised budget and get it voted on this week. If not, they said the original budget will automatically be adopted.
That would mean a 30-mill tax increase and no cuts at all, George said.
Asked if he would vote for a budget with a 25-mill tax hike, Merritt said he would have to wait and see.
I just want to look at the finished product, he said. I'm sure everything will happen quickly. It should come in a flurry, no pun intended.
Last week, City Council approved taking out a $3 million tax anticipation note with PNC Bank to provide the city with funding next year to cover expenses while it awaits revenue payments. The bank agreed to fund the note on several conditions, including the repayment of all outstanding tax and revenue anticipation notes for 2012.
Leighton said the city will meet its obligations for 2012 after facing a $2 million shortfall.
The city has been struggling to close out the year without a deficit due to lower than projected revenues and a delay in payment of earned income tax caused by a problem with CENTAX, the company formerly contracted by Luzerne County to collect and distribute the money to municipalities.
The city is still owed approximately $1 million from the first and second quarters and likely will receive that money next year.
The shortfall resulted in the layoffs of 11 firefighters, four Department of Public Works employees and voluntary furloughs and retirements of employees in other departments. The cuts could be extended into next year.
City Council is expected to get a copy of Mayor Tom Leighton's revised 2013 budget today. If that happens, Council President Mike Merritt said council could meet as early as Friday to vote on the spending plan.