Last updated: October 31. 2013 11:39PM - 4939 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com

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Asked to simulate the effect of 217 potential staff cuts, Luzerne County budget/policy analyst Adam Szumski had to remove his own position on his spread sheet.

“There are only so many ways to get to 217 while keeping some of our services going internally and for the public,” Szumski said Thursday.

Szumski prepared the chart to give County Council an idea of what could happen next year without $10.4 million from a proposed 8-percent tax hike and concessions from the workforce. He stressed his chart was not a final plan because management would have to weigh in on specific cuts.

He zeroed in on 585 positions for most of the cuts because the administration believes the remaining 893, or roughly 60 percent, can’t be touched because they handle public safety or are in human service branches primarily funded by the state and federal governments.

In his worst-case scenario, Szumski reduced his department — budget/finance — from 11 to three employees.

Several departments ended up with only one employee to handle all office duties: emergency management, orphan’s court, deeds, wills, the election bureau, information technology, purchasing and the manager’s office, he said.

The mapping and engineering departments were left with no employees in Szumski’s mathematical exercise.

The court branch — which includes stenographers, judicial support, domestic relations and probation services — lost 63 positions for a new total of 228 staffers.

Judicial Services and Records Head Joan Hoggarth said her division would be nearly cut in half, from 88 to 45 employees.

The division includes deeds, wills, civil and criminal court records and the sheriff’s office.

“The offices could not sustain themselves and would definitely fail in providing their mandated services, and there would be a major loss in revenue,” Hoggarth said.

Impact on services

Citizens, attorneys and other customers would have to wait longer to record mortgages and deeds, obtain marriage licenses and process wills, she said. Sheriff’s office hours for issuing gun permits would be decreased, and that office would lose out on revenue from serving legal documents to citizens because there wouldn’t be enough deputies to make repeat visits.

“There would be nobody available to help the public with research, to answer phones or provide certified copies of documents to people who request them, which also generates revenue for the county,” Hoggarth said.

The deeds office records about 50,000 documents per year, and there is “no way one employee could handle that,” she said.

The criminal court records office, also known as clerk of courts, also was ordered by the state to start handling an additional service involving adoption notifications on Jan. 1 — work previously completed by three Children and Youth employees, Hoggarth said. Szumski’s report says the criminal records office could be reduced from 16 to five workers.

Planning/Zoning Director Adrian Merolli said his office “would be practically nonfunctional” if reduced from five to two employees as envisioned.

Developers and other property owners cannot obtain building permits without zoning permits issued by his office, and delays would slow up new development that boosts the county’s tax base, Merolli said.

His office relies heavily on engineering and a computerized mapping system maintained by the mapping department and questions how his office would operate if these two partners are wiped out due to cuts.

The cuts also would prevent his office from fulfilling grant responsibilities that generate revenue for the county, he said.

Managers say employees are on edge and won’t know the course of action until council votes on the 2014 budget Dec. 10.

“There’s too much uncertainty. It’s causing great distress among the employees,” Merolli said.

Map database

Mapping Director Dave Skoronski said his office maintains the database used by many departments, including 911 and other public safety branches.

The office also creates land records needed to allow new development and provides information and records to developers, homeowners, planners, attorneys, Realtors and surveyors involved in assessments and the buying and selling property.

Gutting the department would “shoot economic development in the foot,” he said.

“Mapping is an integral part of the sustainable financial health of the county, and my office generates $180,000 in revenue for the county annually,” Skoronski said.

County Manager Robert Lawton said he will be meeting with division heads to obtain their assessment on the impact of the 217 cuts. He said the administration continues to hunt for new revenue and other cuts but does not expect any game-changers.

“If you want no tax increase, there’s no other way to get there,” Lawton said, referring to the cuts.

The owners of a property assessed at $100,000 would pay $42.56 more with an 8-percent hike.

Compromise options

According to Szumski’s analysis, the county would need 99 staff cuts if council compromises with a 6-percent hike. The cuts would be 134 employees with a 4-percent hike and 177 workers with a 2-percent increase.

Lawton expects division heads to emphasize the corresponding revenue loss from mass layoffs, which could trigger a “downward spiral” requiring further staff cuts. Revenue losses from the staff cuts were not factored into the 2014 budget.

“It would be impossible to eliminate the number of positions necessary without severe, substantial, direct impact on our ability to serve the taxpayer,” Lawton said.

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