WILKES-BARRE – January looked grim with layoffs for the fire department if Mayor Tom Leighton's tax hike holds, and December was just as bad, he said when pressed for details Monday night at the city council meeting.
The cuts next year and furloughs next month would be hard on the 63-member department. Police, public works and other departments would also be affected as the city struggles to find ways to make up for an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall this year and reduce the 30-mill property tax increase proposed in the mayor's $45.8 million balanced budget for 2013.
But the focus was on the fire department at council's meeting, as Mike Bilski, president of the International Fire Fighters Association Local 104, asked for answers on what to expect.
The mayor put layoffs anywhere from 11 to zero, Bilski said. Before the union agrees to give back anything it needs specifics from the mayor. The department would like to have a mandatory minimum staffing of 17 firefighters per shift, but has agreed to 11 and doesn't want to see it go any lower.
He told the mayor and council that the five retirements in the department as of Wednesday should negate the need for layoffs. Still, the union is willing to work with the mayor at this time.
We don't know what concessions to give until we have a set number of how many guys are going to be affected by this, Bilski said.
As he has done in private when meeting with the fire department and the three other unions representing nearly 260 employees, the mayor publicly asked for help.
The city's been very good to the fire department. The fire department's been very good to the city. But it's been a very difficult nine years because of past mistakes and the economy, said Leighton, who's been mayor for that long. We're doing the best we can under extremely adverse conditions on the financial side.
Without a clear-cut answer from the mayor, Bilski moved on to this year's furloughs.
How does December look? he asked.
Not good. There's definitely going to be some cuts in December and we're working on that now, the mayor responded.
A decision would be made by Dec. 1, he said.
Council, on the other hand, acted on hastily added items to the agenda that had been blank hours before the meeting.
It approved the first reading of eight ordinances dealing with fee increases for city-provided services the mayor proposed in next year's budget. Among them were: an increase of 25 cents per bag for the garbage bags used in the city; a 30-percent increase in rental inspection and rental license fees; an increase of 25 cents in the cost of parking at a meter, bringing the hourly rate to $1, and raising parking tickets to $20 from $10.
The second and final reading will be at the Dec. 13 council meeting in order for the increases to take effect at the first of the year.
Council also passed two resolutions.
It approved the demolition of the Hotel Sterling building, but in order for the structure to be razed Luzerne County and City Vest, the owner, still have to negotiate an agreement. The county has already agreed to cover up to $237,729 in demolition costs incurred by the city, which has set aside $260,000 for the work.
In the other matter, the city will issue up to $5.06 million in bonds for an energy savings project proposed by contractor Johnson Controls Inc. The deal would guarantee savings of $2.9 million over to 20 years and pay back the loan.
The mayor waited until a decision was made on the city's credit rating before going ahead with the project.
Standard & Poor's Ratings Services downgraded the rating Friday to A- from A due to concerns the city would not be able to pay back a $3 million tax anticipation note by the end of the year.
The mayor said the revision was expected, but still boasted of the rating, saying it allows the city to borrow at low interest rates and saves the taxpayers money.
We're not in the junk-bond market because we have a credit rating, he said.
Council will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6 p.m. Nov. 28 in council chambers on the fourth floor of City Hall, 40 E. Market St.