Last updated: January 21. 2014 11:47PM - 3408 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

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Luzerne County Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski proposed a 2014 budget amendment package that could reduce the 8-percent tax hike Tuesday night, though some of his colleagues questioned the feasibility of his suggestions.

Brominski said he believes revenue or savings from the following could reduce the tax hike to 1.8- to 2 percent:

• Selling the county-owned former Valley Crest Nursing Home property in Plains Township.

• Marketing and selling timber rights on county land.

• Implementing an energy efficiency plan to reduce utility costs.

• Offering employees an early-retirement incentive.

• Reducing the county’s $510,000 allocation to the county Transportation Authority.

County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said Brominski gave him estimates of savings or revenue for each proposal, but Pedri said they also should be reviewed by the administration, which may reach a different conclusion.

To comply with procedures, the amendments must be publicly advertised, Pedri said. A public hearing also is required before the Feb. 15 home rule charter deadline to amend the budget.

Council plans to discuss the amendments at Tuesday’s meeting, followed by a public hearing in early February if a majority of council opts to proceed.

A vote to amend the budget is possible in the year after a council election. New Council members Eileen Sorokas and Kathy Dobash and four other council members — a majority — have expressed a willingness to reopen the spending plan.

Each percentage of the tax hike generates about $1 million, which means $8 million in cuts would be needed to erase the increase.

Councilman Jim Bobeck said the county may be legally required to provide the allocation to the transportation authority and questioned how the county would pay for an incentive encouraging employees to retire early. Bobeck also said revenue from the sale of Valley Crest was put in the 2011 budget by past commissioners. However, there has been no buyer.

“Here we are in 2014, and that still hasn’t happened,” he said of the sale.

Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck said an early-retirement incentive funded by the employee pension system could increase future taxpayer subsidies required to keep the fund stable.

Taxpayers must pump an estimated $9.4 million into the employee pension fund to keep it stable this year, a new high. The fund has required more than $62 million in taxpayer subsidies since 2002, records show.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban, a former commissioner, acknowledged that possibility but suggested officials look at an incentive that is less generous than ones offered in the past. The savings from reducing staff may exceed the future impact on the pension fund, he said.

Councilman Harry Haas said Brominski’s proposal is “rather heroic” but criticized him for failing to suggest the ideas last fall when council was “struggling” to avoid a tax hike. Haas also challenged counting on Valley Crest revenue when no potential buyer has been identified, describing it as a “pie in the sky” idea.

Brominski said his projections are no more “pie in the sky” than savings estimates to switch to in-house county tax collection. “We don’t have any definitive number there,” Brominski said.

Haas said the county has already saved money on bonding several treasurer’s office employees to handle collection instead of 69 elected collectors. The treasurer’s office insists the county will save at least $240,000 annually and generate $78,500 in new revenue.

Brominski said a decrease in the transportation authority allocation is warranted due to ridership decline. Urban said the authority should be forced to justify the money requested from the county.

An 8-percent tax increase amounts to $43 more on a property assessed at $100,000.

In other business Tuesday, a council majority voted to require the county manager to notify council at least five days before adding positions or granting raises that were not included in a position report attached to the county’s annual budget.

McClosky Houck proposed the change to keep council informed. Her original proposal requiring the manager to obtain council approval for raises and new positions was nixed because the home rule charter prohibits it.

Eight council members supported the change. Bobeck and Councilman Rick Williams voted no, and Councilman Tim McGinley was absent.

Williams said the manager must live within a budget approved by council and said he’s concerned about council “meddling” with the manager’s authority to manage his staff. Bobeck said the manager has been publicly posting personnel changes after they occur, and the five-day notice allows the “potential for interference.”

Dobash said she supports the change because it “eliminates surprise.”

A council majority also approved Council Chairman Rick Morelli’s proposed operating procedures, which includes creation of council committees to review information and requests before matters come to council for a vote.

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