Last updated: February 20. 2013 12:20AM - 619 Views

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WILKES-BARRE -- City Councilman Bill Barrett was unable to attend last week's meeting to approve the 2013 budget due to personal reasons, but he said Monday that since taxes are going up 26 percent, the 11 furloughed firefighters should be called back as soon as possible.

Raising taxes 25 mills is difficult enough, Barrett said Monday. I'd like to see the firefighters back to work Jan. 2, but I guess we'll have to wait.

City Council on Friday approved Mayor Tom Leighton's revised 2013 budget, raising property taxes 26 percent. The 11 furloughed firefighter positions are in the budget, but Leighton has not announced when he would reinstate them.

I will analyze the revenue throughout 2013, and when the revenue improves and conditions improve is when the firemen will return, Leighton said Monday. If the city had received some (union) concessions, they would have returned to duty sooner.

He also said no retirees will be replaced at this point.

Mike Bilski, president of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the union did offer Leighton concessions on at least four occasions as the administration dealt with a $2 million shortfall for 2012, but none was accepted.

We just wanted a guarantee on when the guys would be called back, Bilski said.

Bilski said he remains optimistic that the 11 firefighters will be back to work, but until then overtime pay will remain an issue. He said Leighton picked the worst month to implement the layoffs because scheduled holiday vacations required more than 100 shifts to be covered.

Bilski said it would have been cheaper for the city to keep the 11 furloughed firefighters on the job. He said with 53 in the department working 12-man shifts, if two scheduled firefighters are off for illness or vacation, overtime shifts will be required.

Like I said, I was hoping all would be back in January, but it's on him (Leighton).

Barrett was quick to say that it's the mayor's budget. He said had council not approved the 25-mill hike, the mayor's original budget proposal would have taken effect with a 30-mill hike.

Council agreed with the mayor's proposal to raise taxes, Barrett said. With taxes going up, it's only right that the firefighters be called back.

Barrett said he would have liked to have seen some concessions from the city's unionized employees.

We don't want to be looking at this type of situation again at the end of the year, he said.

Barrett agrees with council President Mike Merritt on looking to change the culture of city government – starting with the pension plans. Barrett also favors looking into cooperative agreements with neighboring municipalities for firefighting and other services.

It's time to sit down and discuss the options, he said. We have to work together to save some of these costs.

Barrett said Leighton did accept many of council's suggestions to make cuts in the budget. He said more work needs to be done.

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