WILKES-BARRE – City employees may face a payless payday before the end of the year to resolve the $2 million spending shortfall.
According to Drew McLaughlin, administrative coordinator, no more layoffs are planned before the end of 2012, but the possibility of a payless payday looms on the horizon.
What the mayor has said repeatedly to all union leaders since Labor Day, not just the fire department, is that a payless payday is a possibility, McLaughlin said. And if the 2013 budget is not approved at 25 mills, there will be significant cuts that will have to be made not just in staffing, but in services across all municipal departments.
McLaughlin explained that additional cuts in the fire department may not be necessary, but if the millage increase is only around 15 mills, the already announced cuts would most likely become permanent.
In another development Tuesday, Mayor Tom Leighton said he is advocating for concessions coupled with a 25-mill increase to avert such permanent drastic cuts.
The administration will advocate for a 25-mill increase and we are asking all municipal unions to immediately vote on a salary freeze for one year, he said. This will save taxpayers a half-million dollars and will help keep people employed and/or returned to work.
McLaughlin said a 25-mill increase means the average real estate tax increase would be about $2.94 per week, or about $152 annually.
McLaughlin said the payless payday would be implemented as a last resort to meet the city's financial obligations.
We have informed all employees and their leadership that it could happen, he said.
McLaughlin said the 2013 budget has been revised to reflect a request for a 25-mill increase.
The mayor, the city council, and most importantly, the taxpayers have all expressed their dissatisfaction with a 30-mill increase, McLaughlin said.
The city's firefighters have repeatedly raised the issue of safety since the layoffs were announced last week, in addition to projecting high overtime costs to man all shifts. Leighton said that public safety will not be intentionally jeopardized.
The shifts will be manned exactly the same way as the day prior to the announced furloughs, Leighton said. Each fire department platoon is staffed above the minimum manning level of 11.
Leighton said the minimum manning has not been altered by the 11 furloughs. He said the city will pay overtime if staffing drops below 11. When the shifts are staffed at 11, two fire engines will remain in service, he said.
Asked if the city is planning to move toward a mostly volunteer department, Leighton said that is not an immediate priority.
But looking ahead at the rising cost of providing services as compared to the tax base, a regionalized fire service might become a necessity over the next five to 10 years, the mayor said.
Leighton said the immediate fiscal problems of 2012 are independent of the 2013 budget negotiations. The city currently estimates an end of year deficit of $1.5 million to $2 million, created in largely by the Centax earned income tax shortfall and struggling revenue sources, such as the real estate transfer tax.
Leighton said the administration is in the process of revising the 2013 budget proposal. He said the two remaining variables in the budget are the tax millage increase and union concessions.
Runaway spending has not exacerbated the city's problems. Just one example, the city is currently under budget by approximately $36,000 in training and travel expenses throughout the year. We have and will continue to curb expenditures wherever possible, he said.
Leighton bristled when asked about what members of the public have termed frivolous expenditures, such as cellphones, and membership fees.
We vehemently dispute that these cited expenditures are frivolous, he said.
He said cellphones allow the government to operate more efficiently through email and cellphone communication, as well as be more responsive to the public and the media.
The city provided a list, by department, of furloughed or retired employees:
Fire Department - 11 furloughed; 5 retirements; 16 total
Police Department - 2 retirements
DPW - 4 furloughed; 2 retired; 6 total
Parking Enforcement - 1 retiree
Tax Office - 1 retiree
Purchasing - 1 retiree
Finance - 1 voluntary furlough
Special Events - 1 voluntary furlough