November 28, 2012
WILKES-BARRE – City officials again will discuss tonight a proposed 2013 budget that seeks union concessions, raises property taxes and fees and will likely require layoffs.
Since unveiling the plan six weeks ago, Mayor Tom Leighton has stuck to one theme: he needs employees' help to minimize the pain.
Following are highlights of the budget issues to be aired again tonight.
Leighton said Tuesday he has not received a response on whether employees will forgo 3 percent raises in 2013 and give up three paid, non-federal holidays to save the city about $500,000.
Salaries and benefits account for $28.6 million or 62 percent of the 2013 budget, and the mayor has been looking at improving the city's finances by trimming the payroll through retirements.
But one union leader, Mike Bilski, president of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he still doesn't know how many layoffs the mayor is contemplating, and he urged the administration to take a closer look at budgets of all departments.
Bilski said the mayor's math also seems inaccurate.
Bilski said the proposed 2013 budget has some major flaws in the public safety portion of the fire budget.
Currently the city has budgeted for 61 firefighters for fire suppression, eight firefighters for uniformed ambulance service, and three for administration, which includes the fire inspector, training officer and chief of the department, Bilski said. That amounts to a budget that reflects 72 firefighters on the WBFD, which is incorrect.
Currently we are down to 64 firefighters. Logic would dictate that if you remove the extra eight firefighters from the budget, that would take care of $700,000 of the 2013 budget shortfall.
Drew McLaughlin, administrative coordinator for the city, said the 2013 salaries for the fire department as presented will be updated to reflect retirements within the department.
The 2013 budget figure as presented on Oct. 15 assumes no retirements, McLaughlin said. That was prior to the confirmation date of the different retirement offers that were floated to eligible city employees.
Leighton said the union heads are well aware of the city's financial crisis.
Bilski said he raised his concerns with Leighton because the administration is basically laying the whole cost of the $2 million shortfall on the fire department. And now we are reduced by 24 firefighters and are threatened with the loss of 20 more.
The city is struggling to make up for an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall this year and reduce the 31 percent property tax increase proposed in the mayor's $45.8 million balanced budget for 2013. He has asked the city's four unions to turn back the 3 percent pay hike built into their contracts.
Also, at Leighton's recommendation, City Council last week approved the first reading of eight ordinances dealing with fee increases for city-provided services the mayor proposed in next year's budget.
Recently, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services downgraded the city's rating 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.
Eleven city employees accepted early retirement earlier this month: four in the fire department, two police officers, two in the public works department, one non-union management in the purchasing department and two in Local 1310 – one in parking enforcement and one in the tax office.
About 51 employees were eligible to take the early-retirement incentive. They could choose between a $400 monthly stipend from Jan. 1, 2013 to December 2015, or health care coverage for their spouses and dependents for the same time period.
Council has to adopt a budget by the end of the year.
City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed 2013 budget today at 6 p.m. in council chambers, 4th floor, City Hall, 40 E. Market St.