Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton has invited union leaders to a closed-door meeting this morning to start discussing his call for $2.77 million in concessions to avoid an estimated 55 layoffs next year.
Union leader Paula Schnelly said Wednesday she will attend the meeting with an open mind but said Lawton has backed workers against the wall with the release of a proposed 2014 budget containing an 8 percent tax hike and the $2.77 million shortfall.
“Let’s face it. Council is never going to vote for an 8-percent hike, which is an indication more layoffs are coming regardless,” said Schnelly, who represents hundreds of workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.
“I personally feel this was a strategy on Lawton’s part to turn taxpayers against county employees,” she said.
Lawton said he is seeking concessions such as higher employee contributions toward health care or pensions because he has nowhere else to turn to reduce costs while covering mandated services and debt repayments.
Schnelly said the union’s workers have sustained layoffs and made concessions in recent years, including contracts with no pay raises in some years and increased payments for health care. Some offices have backlogs due to staffing shortages, and several employees have been taking work home to catch up, she said.
“The workforce has been slashed. I can’t even imagine where these cuts are going to come from,” Schnelly said.
She also questioned why the administration waited until this week to sound the alarm, saying officials promised increased finance monitoring under home rule to prevent annual budget crises that have plagued the county.
“Here we are again, with everybody wondering if they will have a job at the end of the year,” she said.
Probation union head Charles Majikes said his workers offered around $300,000 in concessions last year to avoid layoffs, but the administration rejected that offer. The county is down to 81 adult and juvenile probation officers and domestic relations support officers, compared to 127 in 2008. These officers ensure people out on probation and parole are complying with court-ordered sanctions, he said.
Further staff cuts would jeopardize public safety, he said.
“We’re stretched to our limits now,” he said. “The stress levels are the highest they’ve ever been because of all the layoffs and added responsibilities we have now.”
Majikes also wants to see hard numbers backing up Lawton’s assertion that health care costs are increasing $2 million next year — another cited contributor to the tax increase.
“They keep throwing these numbers out there, but we have no idea what’s accurate,” Majikes said.
Union officials representing prison employees, detectives and workers covered by Teamsters Local 401 could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The 11-member county council will vote on the budget in December, and council members Stephen A. Urban and Stephen J. Urban are already on the record saying they won’t support any tax increase.
Lawton said the county would have to cut an estimated 160 employees without the additional $8 million generated from a tax hike.
Councilman Rick Morelli described the proposed budget as a “death blow” and said council members have not effectively pushed Lawton for projections so they could research and plan alternatives sooner. He complained that a majority of council rejected his push for a special council budget committee and said council’s public budget work sessions have focused more on current finances and operations in some departments — not future budgetary challenges.
Countywide workforce concessions that require the reopening of multiple union contracts could take months to negotiate and execute, he said. Council needs specific information on the departments and services that would be affected by cuts to assess the potential damage, he said.
“Passing a budget is council’s responsibility, and we haven’t had enough of the facts to know where we’re going,” Morelli said, noting he and other home rule charter drafters were wise to cap annual property taxes at 8 percent.
But Council Chairman Tim McGinley said council is in a difficult position because the home rule charter gives the county manager — not council — control over preparing and submitting a proposed budget.
“I’m hopeful that through discussions with workers, vendors and contractors we can reach some better numbers that will help to alleviate any proposed tax increase and staff cuts,” McGinley said.
Councilman Edward Brominski said the administration should have been more forthright about the looming fiscal challenges and said he believes the manager and county officials must be more proactive selling the county to potential employers to boost the tax base, and thus property tax revenue.
“We have to get more businesses in here. We’re losing more than we’re gaining,” he said.
Councilman Jim Bobeck said Lawton is openly confronting financial problems that erupted before he became manager in February 2012, and he challenged his colleagues to “make the best long-term choice, not what is politically popular.”
“You can’t clean it up unless you face the fire, stop blaming others and simply do what is necessary,” Bobeck said.