A week after nixing a proposed Luzerne County tax hike, council members spent three hours in their final budget work session Tuesday discussing further cuts involving health care, non-union raises and other expenses.
Council will vote on these suggested amendments Dec. 12 as part of the 2018 budget adoption.
County Manager C. David Pedri’s proposed budget included $163,425 to provide merit-based raises of up to 3 percent for as many as 180 non-union employees.
Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley on Tuesday proposed reducing the funding to allow raises of up to 2 percent, in part because many non-union workers received pay increases in 2016, after an eight-year freeze, based on an outside analysis that concluded their compensation was below industry standards.
Raises for unionized workers have been averaging about 2 percent annually, McGinley said, stressing some have received nothing or more depending on the year.
Pedri pushed for his original request, pointing out council required non-union workers to switch to 37.5-hour work weeks in 2013 without additional compensation at that time. Most had been working 32.5 hours, he said.
The raises would be tied to performance reviews, and some may receive nothing, he said.
“I’m asking you to take a stand for county employees,” said Pedri.
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash pitched an amendment to start converting non-union employees from 10 percent health insurance contributions to 20 percent over five years, starting by bumping them up to 12 percent next year.
Depending on the type of plan selected, the 2018 contributions for employees at 10 percent will range from $27.84 to $86.30 every two weeks. At 12 percent, those amounts would run from $33.41 to $103.56.
But Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said the county’s home rule charter does not expressly grant council authority to dictate the percentage contributions. Instead, council has the “power of the purse” to set limits on how much can be spent on health insurance.
The county budgeted $11.27 million for health insurance in 2018, an increase of $700,000.
In light of the legal opinion, Councilman Stephen A. Urban tried a different approach and introduced an amendment to reduce the insurance allotment by $700,000, which would force the administration to make some adjustment.
Dobash also proposed an amendment to decrease county real estate taxes.
The current tax rate is 5.9754 mills, which equates to $597.54 on a property assessed at $100,000.
At her recommended rate of 5.9 mills, taxes on that same property would be $590, or $7.54 less.
County Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz told council he will calculate how much revenue would be lost with such a reduction.
Council members did not debate the option during Tuesday’s session.
Elimination of the proposed 2 percent tax hike, which would have generated $2.1 million, was not a challenge because the county’s debt repayments will decrease $5.3 million next year thanks to recent refinancing.
The administration’s proposed 2018 budget factored in $26.1 million for debt repayments next year, but the county now owes $20.76 million due to the refinancing. Some council members have expressed resistance to a tax decrease because debt repayments will rise to $24.9 million in 2019 and back up to $26.1 million in 2020, remaining around that amount through 2028.
County Chief Public Defender Steven Greenwald implored council to reject Councilman Harry Haas’ pending amendment cutting $52,400 from his budget to fund compensation and benefits for two new proposed positions — a clerk stenographer at $25,200 and an investigator to be paid $27,200.
However, it’s unclear if the budget cuts would halt the new positions. Urban pointed out the proposed budget factored in higher salaries for a few employees who have left or will retire at the end of the year, resulting in savings from lower-paid replacements.
Pedri said he will tally that savings before the amendment is up for a vote Dec. 12.
Caseloads are rising in the office because court officials are requiring public defenders to represent all offenders appearing at the county’s new central court — unless the offenders secure private legal counsel or the public defender’s office later establishes the offenders don’t meet income limits, Greenwald said.
Greenwald has estimated his office will be inundated with 600 to 800 additional cases annually. Some would have ended up in his attorneys’ hands eventually, but not until they advanced to the Common Pleas level, he has said.
Greenwald’s office has received at least 130 new clients during the first six weeks of central court. He said an investigator is needed to track down clients because only a few honored requirements to schedule a meeting with his office to present information determining if they meet income requirements.
Income verification is critical, he said, citing a female client who was represented by his office approximately three weeks ago, even though she earned $100,000 annually.