WILKES-BARRE – With a little more than one month to pass a budget, City Council on Wednesday listened to suggestions from the public and will now evaluate them as the five-member panel tries to reduce a proposed tax hike and eliminate the need for layoffs.
The city is facing an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall this year and Mayor Tom Leighton has proposed a $45.8 million budget that would increase property taxes by 31 percent and cut out between 11 and 20 jobs. Leighton has asked the city's four unions to turn back the 3 percent pay hike built into their contracts, but so far none of the unions has responded.
Mike Bilski, president of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he has asked the mayor to scrutinize the budget in hopes of finding areas to cut to avert the layoffs and tax hike.
We're going to meet with the mayor (Thursday), Bilski said at Wednesday night's budget hearing. I'm not going to throw out the concession word, but we hope to convince the administration to go through the budget thoroughly before cutting jobs. I have 64 people to worry about, as do the other union leaders.
Most of the people crowded into council chambers for the hearing felt that before laying off firefighters and/or police officers, council and the mayor should first look at what one person called a top-heavy administration. Several people presented areas that they felt could – or should – be cut before taxes go up or the jobs of those who protect the city are eliminated.
Council Chairman Mike Merritt said after the meeting council will now go over all the suggestions presented and continue reviewing the proposed budget. He said he has a goal in mind, but he wouldn't reveal what it is.
Nobody wants to raise taxes or lay people off, Merritt said. Yes, we will look at everything – including the administration. But a lot of those people have been in those jobs for years. If they were in the private sector, those jobs would pay a lot more.
Merritt said council wants to pass a budget by year's end and he didn't rule out rejecting the mayor's plan.
There's always that chance, Merritt said, of returning the spending plan to the mayor to revise. We want to be sure the budget is as lean as possible. If we lay off people, they may disappear, but the work they do doesn't go away.
James Gallagher was the first to speak at the hearing and he said while driving to City Hall he decided to pray. He said Leighton has done a good job and he has no personal vendetta.
But I don't understand how a budget can be passed if the people can't afford it, Gallagher said. I ask that you act on behalf of the city and do what is in the best interests of the residents.
Linda Urban presented a list of city employees and their salaries – about $14.7 million.
Oh, my God, she said as she read off some of the numbers. I think you people in the administration should be the first to be cut. It's not necessary that you make all this money when people are being laid off.
Urban said the majority of city taxpayers are struggling. She said that if this budget is passed, the city will lose many residents.
Karen Ceppa Hirko, whose husband is a city firefighter, presented a list of cuts that she said could save the city more than $200,000.
This is what I have found so far, she said. I'm sure there is a lot more we can find to cut.
Lou Jasikoff, former head of the Pennsylvania Libertarian Party, wondered who will be laid off. He noted many city employees are related to Leighton.
Take a look at yourselves, he said. You have an elite group working in this city – a whole class of people who have been living off of the taxpayers.
Sam Troy said he sees the city on the brink of bankruptcy. He said the tax hike must be eliminated.
If enacted, this will cause terrible harm to people who are already overburdened, Troy said. Look for other ways to increase revenue.
Frank Sorick and Robert Fountain, a certified benefits consultant, presented council with an option to review the city's health care plan. Fountain said if the numbers are right the city could realize significant savings.
Council plans to meet with Fountain to work out the details. Fountain said he would provide the review at no cost to the city.