Sunday, July 13, 2014

Council considers reopening county’s tax-raising budget

Some new and returning members unhappy with 8% hike

December 17. 2013 11:59PM

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Luzerne County’s 8-percent tax hike for 2014 may not be a done deal.

The county’s home rule charter says a council majority — six out of 11 members — can amend the budget and tax rate before Feb. 15 in the year after a council election.

Incoming council members Kathy Dobash and Eileen Sorokas and four sitting council members — Edward Brominski, Stephen A. Urban, Stephen J. Urban and Rick Morelli — all said they’re willing to explore reopening the 2014 budget.

Dobash and Sorokas will take office Jan. 6.

The 8-percent equates to $42.56 more per year on a property assessed at $100,000.

Sorokas said she has been thinking about reopening the budget but didn’t know if there would be six votes.

She campaigned against tax hikes, saying she’d choose layoffs over a tax hike if push came to shove. However, she said this week she does not want significant layoffs of rank-and-file workers and would be more supportive of non-union furloughs.

“I was thinking a 4-percent tax hike would be more livable,” Sorokas said.

A 4-percent hike would require about $4 million in cuts or new revenue. The 8-percent hike will generate $8 million.

A projected 194 staff cuts — a mix of union and non-union — would be necessary with no tax hike, the administration has said.

Dobash, who also campaigned against tax hikes, said she would support a budget reopening because she has heard from many citizens opposed to an increase.

“I’d welcome any opportunity to ease the burden on the property owners, but we would need extensive discussion about what we could do,” Dobash said.

Incumbents’ view

Morelli, Brominski and both Urbans voted against the budget last week, and Stephen J. Urban publicly predicted the budget would be reopened in January.

Morelli said he’s open to revisiting the budget because he would support some tax hike, but not 8 percent.

“It wouldn’t hurt to reopen the budget and talk about other options, but we’d need a plan,” Morelli said.

Stephen A. Urban concurred, saying council members who oppose both tax hikes and layoffs would have to propose other tangible ways to reduce spending or generate revenue.

“I have no problem with layoffs. It’s part of life,” he said.

Brominski said he’s up for the challenge of redoing the budget because he’s convinced there could be no tax hike or layoffs.

“I certainly believe it should be reopened. I firmly believe there are areas that we can find available to help balance the budget. I have many ideas,” Brominski said.

Stephen J. Urban said he would reopen the budget, cancel the tax hike and impose layoffs if workers don’t propose alternatives.

“We need to pressure the employees to really think outside the box. It sets a bad precedent to raise taxes every time more money is needed. Maybe they will find more efficiencies if their jobs are on the line,” he said.

But county Manager Robert Lawton repeatedly said during budget hearings the administration has scoured the budget and found no viable alternatives to avoid layoffs or a tax hike.

Lawton said Tuesday that he and his staff will cooperate with council requests for information if the budget is reopened.

“Promises have been made to have no layoffs and no tax increase. The county manager’s office will provide all possible assistance as they unveil their plan to keep that promise,” Lawton said. “We will implement any cuts they adopt.”

Layoff fallout

Lawton has cautioned mass layoffs would further reduce revenue and force the county to reduce the hours offices are open to the public.

The county court system, district attorney’s office and controller’s office also would have the option to sue the county if they believe reduced budget allocations compromise their ability to fulfill mandated responsibilities.

Several council candidates who were not elected in November had privately indicated they would not attempt to reopen the budget if council adopted an 8-percent hike. The reason: They wouldn’t have to wrestle with the impact of major cuts or accept blame for raising taxes.

Council members opted to reopen the budget in January 2012 after the last council election, which also was the first council election under the new home rule government.

That situation was different because commissioners bequeathed a budget with no tax hike and an estimated 106 layoffs.

A council majority concluded the cuts were too drastic and passed an amended budget that raised taxes 2 percent, tapped $1.4 million in past borrowed funds to help repay debt and furloughed around 60 employees.

Council members complained at the time their options were limited because of the short window between the time they took office and the Feb. 15 deadline.

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