WILKES-BARRE – Mayor Tom Leighton on Thursday called the 11 firefighters he laid off last year and told them they will return to work next month, crediting the decision on the anticipated receipt of payments from an ongoing tax issue and an expected increase in revenues.
Leighton said the firefighters will come back Feb. 8, more than two months after he furloughed them to help make up an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall.
It's not that we found money, the mayor said. Within the next two weeks the city will receive approximately half of the $600,000 to $1 million owed by Centax from the earned income tax the company collected last year, he said.
In addition, the property tax bills will be going out next week, and firefighters have some vacation time coming up, making the call-back necessary.
Other firefighters have been working overtime nearly every day since the Dec. 1 layoffs to meet a minimum staffing level of 11 for each of the two daily shifts. Two engines have been out of service due to reductions in the department.
City Council and union officials had repeatedly asked when the layoffs would end, saying the $44.9 million budget approved for this year included wages and benefits for the firefighters and a 25-mill property tax increase to bring them back.
But they remained off the job while the mayor sought concessions from those union officials and the other three unions as a condition for the return of the firefighters. He said he will continue to seek concessions.
Leighton defended his decision on the layoffs and said, despite the money budgeted for the firefighters, the city did not have money in its account. The money comes in over 12 months, he said.
The mayor said he called each of the laid-off firefighters and told them they would be back in uniform. Some told him they understood the situation the city was in and said they had no ill feelings toward me, Leighton said.
Still there's been no promise they wouldn't be laid off again. There's no guarantee of anybody working a full year, he said.
One of the 11 firefighters was relieved to hear from the mayor.
I'm thrilled to be back to work, said Tom Murphy.
Greg Freitas, vice president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104, said he suspected the influx of money owed from Centax, the former collector of earned income tax for the city and other municipalities and school districts in Luzerne County, played a role.
The Luzerne County Tax Collection Committee received an update Wednesday on the $7.18 million held in an account for the county.
Freitas said the firefighters are happy with the call-back. Things were very dire for a while, he said.
Freitas spoke to one of the laid-off firefighters Thursday morning before the city made its announcement. His story wasn't very good, he said. I told him to keep his chin up.
The mayor later called him and Mike Bilski, union president, with the news on ending the layoffs, Freitas said.
Fire Chief Jay Delaney is going to contact the firefighters and have them report to the department Jan. 30, said Freitas, to make sure their driver's licenses and emergency medical technician statuses are up to date and reissue them their gear.