WILKES-BARRE — The job that paid $54,079 a year is gone, but the city’s Help Line remains with members of Mayor Tony George’s staff fielding phone calls from residents.
George Monday confirmed the Sept. 5 retirement of Carol Smith whom he appointed to the job upon taking office in 2016. He said the post won’t be filled due to the city’s financial struggles.
“We’re in a budget crunch, and we have to save wherever we can save,” George said.
The mayor reinstated the position to honor a campaign promise and connect callers with a live person on the other end of the phone line rather than have them deal with voicemail. Smith answered the calls, resolved problems brought up by the callers or directed them to the proper department for resolution.
There were some complaints from the public about paying a city worker more than $54,000 in salary plus benefits to answer the phone. “I didn’t think our finances were bad at the time,” George said, adding Smith’s pay was due to her seniority with the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 1310.
But less than a year into his four-year term, the mayor turned to the state for assistance through its Early Intervention Program for municipalities on the verge of financial collapse. This year, he restructured long-term debt through a more than $70 million bond deal to improve cash flow and pay for reconstruction of sections of the Solomon Creek wall.
With Smith gone her duties will still be handled by the mayor’s staff. They answered the calls when Smith was on leave for several months earlier this year, George said.
The union hasn’t been pushing to fill the job, the mayor said. “Nobody has said nothing,” George said. Local 1310 understands the city’s financial situation, he added.
The city held its first negotiation session Monday with Local 1310 for a new contract to take effect next year. The union that represents City Hall workers and emergency medical technicians agreed to a one-year extension this year that included a three-percent wage increase. It also switched the Good Friday paid holiday for the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. The switch will close City Hall for the MLK holiday next January and fulfill a promise made by the mayor.
Talks with another union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 401 are scheduled for later this month. Local 401 agreed to a one-year extension, but did not switch a holiday for MLK day.
An arbitrator’s decision is pending for the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The Wilkes-Barre Police Benevolent Association contract runs through 2019.