Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton and union leaders met for about two hours Thursday morning in the courthouse basement conference room known as “the bunker” to start discussing employee sacrifices that could be made to avoid layoffs, but both sides were tight-lipped.
“We’re sworn to secrecy,” said Paula Schnelly, who represents hundreds of workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.
Also declining comment were probation/domestic relations officers union head Charles Majikes, Teamsters Local 401’s Pat Connors and prison union head Tom Borum. A representative of the detective union also attended the meeting.
Lawton, who also declined comment, called the meeting because his proposed 2014 budget contains a $2.77 million gap that will be closed with an estimated 55 layoffs if workers don’t agree to concessions, such as higher contributions toward health care or pensions.
Another 160 staff cuts would be needed if county council does not approve an 8-percent tax hike generating $8 million, and 50 non-union positions will be eliminated before Jan. 1 regardless of what happens with the budget because of a conversion to 37.5-hour work days that will result in higher pay for some to work more, Lawton said.
As the union leaders met in the closed-door session, several workers on break said the budget uncertainty has cast a depressing mood on a workforce already struggling with morale issues due to past layoffs and ongoing changes from the county’s switch to home rule government, which began in January 2012.
The workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also question what services the public is willing to give up or slow down to avoid a tax hike, from the recording of deeds and court documents to the plowing of 127 miles of county roadway.
“It’s gloom and doom here. Such a mess,” one worker said.
Union officials and Lawton said a second meeting to discuss concessions might be held next week.
Layoffs, outsourcing and unfilled vacancies in recent years have reduced the county workforce to around 1,450 full-timers, compared to around 1,630 employees at the start of 2011.
The 11-member county council will vote on the budget in December, and council members Stephen A. Urban and Stephen J. Urban are already on the record saying they won’t support any tax increase.