Pa. mayor wants to alter budget to avoid firefighter layoffs

Fire union rep says the budget shortfall took them by surprise and that firefighters are not the only union with a contract that allows layoffs


By Jerry Lynott
The Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Mayor Tony George recommended amending this year's budget to avoid layoffs to the city's fire department like those made in 2012 when there was a revenue shortfall.

In a news release, George said the $51.5 million balanced budget he inherited from former mayor Tom Leighton has revenue projections that are not in line with historical data. A $1.8 million deficit from 2015 coupled with $550,000 in overstated revenues will result in a roughly a $3.65 million shortfall, he said.

"If the budget doesn't change, the city will be forced to make personnel changes to the only union contract that allows for layoffs: the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department. This will be the city's last resort if the budget stays as is," George said.

Leighton furloughed 11 firefighters in December 2012 in response to an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall caused by a delay in the distribution of tax revenue to the city. The firefighters were called back in February 2013.

"This is taking us completely by surprise," said Greg Freitas, vice president of the city firefighters union, when contacted about the news release.

He said George had told him before the Democratic primary last May that firefighters and police would be the last people he would lay off. Freitas added that the mayor is incorrect about the firefighters' contract being the only one allowing for layoffs. The other three unions representing city employees also allow layoffs, Freitas said.

In support of his case for amendments, George said the 2015 budget will have a $1.8 million deficit due to repairs to the police department headquarters. The budget contained a line item of $1,866,891 for building and plant services that Finance Director Brett Kittrick said was for unanticipated repairs to the police station. The expense was 9,334 percent of the $20,000 amount budgeted for the line item.

George called for reductions in six revenue items and an increase in one expense in this year's budget to reflect historical data:

-- Delinquent Business Privilege Tax reduced to $100,000 from $350,000

-- Delinquent Recycling Fees to $50,000 from $100,000

-- Delinquent Magistrate Fines to $0 from $250,000

-- Building Permits to $600,000 from $1.1 million

-- Sale of City Property to $500,000 from $1 million

-- Earned Income Tax to $12.5 million from $12.7 million

-- Sanitary Sewer System Repairs to $400,000 from $300,000.

"I recommend adopting a budget that would meet the specific needs of 2016. That course of action would make the city financially responsible," George said.

Missing from the budget were $250,000 to purchase five new cruisers for the police department and street sweeper for $200,000," he added.

George said his cutting salaries for his senior staff and himself was proof of his commitment to cutting expenses and being responsible with the city's financial obligations while still providing the level of service expected by residents.

The city charter gives the mayor the authority to amend the budget in January following the election of council members in a municipal election. Council has until Feb. 15 to complete final consideration of the amended budget.

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(c)2016 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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