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Concessions needed to cut deficit, manager says

Last updated: November 18. 2013 11:45PM - 3598 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com



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Budget meetings

Luzerne County Council will hold public work sessions on the proposed 2014 budget at 6 tonight and Dec. 2 in the council meeting room at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.



Luzerne County government employees will be asked to accept a $500 health insurance deductible and pay higher copayments and contributions toward their health coverage to help close next year’s $2.4 million budget gap, county Manager Robert Lawton told council Monday.


The health care concessions would reduce the budget deficit by $1.5 million but would not impact a proposed 8-percent county tax hike that’s still on the table, he said during the evening budget session.


The rest of the $2.4 million deficit could be covered by putting off a $400,000 anticipated employee pension fund subsidy increase and eliminating vacant positions totalling $500,000, Lawton said. The vacancy cuts would not include three unfilled division head posts and three positions in the treasurer’s office required to handle the upcoming in-house collection of county taxes.


The proposed health care changes have not been presented in detail to union leaders who have been meeting with the administration about options to reduce layoffs, Lawton said. The county can impose changes for non-union employees without negotiation.


An estimated 217 layoffs would be needed without an 8-percent tax hike and closing of the $2.4 million gap.


Union leaders have expressed a willingness to consider health care alterations to reduce layoffs, but it’s unclear if they would agree to such significant changes.


Employees currently have no deductible. Copayments are $10 for both primary-care physicians and specialists and would be increased to $25, Lawton said. Employees would pay $100 for emergency room visits that don’t result in hospital admittance instead of $50, he said.


County workers pay flat fees or percentages toward health care, but the percentage amounts haven’t increased since 2008 to keep pace with rising costs, officials say.


The 10-percent contribution paid by non-union and many unionized employees amounts to $526.50 per year for single coverage and $1,286 for family. Under Lawton’s proposal, the 10-percent contributions would increase to $900 for single and $2,400 for family coverage.


Employees packed the meeting room Monday, and some applauded when unionized road and bridge machine operator Angelo Salerno defended them.


Salerno described difficulties maintaining and plowing county roads with the current staff and said service will suffer with further cuts. He also criticized management’s hiring of outside consultants and said employees are not to blame for the $27 million in debt repayments next year that are contributing to the county’s fiscal struggles.


“A lot of the people standing behind me, they work for this county, they give their life and their soul to this county, and you’re asking them to pay for it with their jobs, and I don’t think it’s fair,” he said.


Judicial Services and Records Division Head Joan Hoggarth said she is trying to increase allowable fees in her office to generate additional revenue. Layoffs will reduce revenue, backlog the processing of filings and force customers to wait for services, she said.


County 911 Executive Director John Robshaw told council many of the “meat-and-potatoes” departments in the operational services division he is temporarily overseeing have been “hit very heavily” by layoffs in recent years. These departments maintain and secure county property and will go “into the danger zone of failure” with fewer workers, he said.


Building-and-grounds, for example, once had 60 employees and is now down to 19, he said. This staff can complete general cleaning and maintenance, but the days of polishing fixtures are over, he said. Preventative maintenance of buildings will “be lost” with additional cuts, he said.


Road-and-bridge, which maintains 130 miles of roadway throughout the county, went from four staffed zones to two due to past job cuts, he said. The Emergency Management Agency has three employees to handle all disasters, he said.


Lawton told council the county would have 1,435 full-time employees next year if taxes are raised 8 percent and vacancies are eliminated. Lehigh County has 20,000 more residents and 2,027 full-time employees, he said.


While insisting the administration continues to review options, Lawton said it is “hard to imagine us being able to have no layoffs and no tax increase.”


Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry criticized “reckless” borrowing by past administrations, saying the current administration is “between a rock and a hard place” because of debt repayments.


Lawton said some of the borrowed funds were given away to municipalities and organizations and used to cover overspending, and he said $135 of the average $400 county tax bill goes toward paying debt.


Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he has observed employees “busting their butt” and working after hours, and they will be the “fall guys.”


But citizen Ed Gustitus warned council the taxpayers “had enough.”


“You can’t raise taxes, because you’ll have a revolution,” he said.


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