Last updated: February 19. 2013 9:43PM - 519 Views

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WILKES-BARRE -- During a marathon five-hour meeting Tuesday, Luzerne County Council delayed voting on a $122.25 million, no-tax-hike 2013 budget.

Council largely pushed off a vote because several citizens complained the public had no opportunity to review and digest budget alterations that weren't finalized until Tuesday.

Council will post the revised budget on the county website ( www.luzernecounty.org) and hold a special meeting, probably on Monday, to adopt the budget.

Several council members surprised their colleagues with proposed changes during budget discussions.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban made a motion to start switching the workforce to 20-percent health care contributions, phased in over time.

The prison union will start paying $60 per month toward health care on Jan. 1, which will mean the entire county workforce pays either flat monthly payments or 10 percent toward insurance.

A majority tabled the motion.

Councilman Harry Haas proposed reducing the salaries of eight new home rule division heads by 10 percent.

The budget would set maximum salaries of $75,000 for the correctional services, budget and financial, judicial services/records, human services and administrative services division heads.

The operational services division head would receive up to $85,000, and the top salaries of the chief solicitor and public defender were set at $90,000 because the attorneys hired can't have outside practices.

When Haas' motion died, Stephen A. Urban unsuccessfully proposed reducing the salaries of the operation, administrative and judicial services chiefs to $65,000.

During public comment around 11 p.m., county Controller Walter Griffith complained some employees are refusing to use time clocks.

County Manager Robert Lawton issued the following response:

The county manager uses the time clock. He is hereby directing everybody to use the time clock, Lawton said.

Some other developments:

• Non-union raises
: A council majority voted to reduce supplies by $250,000 and use up to $100,000 to grant one-time, $1,000 bonuses to non-union employees hired before Jan. 1, 2009.

• Hotel Sterling
: Lawton said the county is working with Wilkes-Barre on a plan to demolish the Hotel Sterling without the involvement of the building's nonprofit owner, CityVest.

Lawton said discussions between the county and city were prompted by CityVest's lack of response to a three-party demolition agreement.

CityVest and the county have an unresolved disagreement over liability issues in the three-party agreement.

Lawton said he's willing to consider a new arrangement with the city, which condemned the structure, if it will bring down the downtown Wilkes-Barre building, limit the county's demolition contribution to $232,729 and ensure the county remains first in line to receive any revenue from sale of the cleared lot.

We're still trying to find a way to reach the same goal without participation of CityVest, Lawton said.

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton also has said the city is willing to take the responsibility of developing the site -- instead of the county – though it's unclear if that's part of the discussions.

CityVest spent $6 million in county community development funding on consultants, enlarging the parcel and tearing down another structure on the 4-acre lot. The shuttered hotel, vacant since 1998, is at Market and River streets.

• Cash shortfall: The county's $6 million year-end cash shortage has been reduced to $2.8 million, Interim Budget/Finance Chief Vic Mazziotti told council. The final $2.6 million payroll of the year is among the bills that must be paid, he said.

Mazziotti said he is exploring about $6 million in possible sources to borrow the funds.

Griffith obtained an opinion from the state that the administration couldn't proceed with plans to borrow $1.4 million in 911 funds to help with the cash-flow. Griffith told council he took offense to a phone message from Mazziotti questioning why he was trying to prevent employees from being paid.

Griffith said he's trying to ensure the county follows the law. The county has often run out of cash at the end of the year, and prior commissioners had borrowed from 911 and other county reserves in the past.

County officials have blamed the shortfall largely on delays receiving $6.8 million in state reimbursement for Children and Youth.

Mazziotti told council he expects year-end cash shortages for years until the county is able to build a cash reserve that may be tapped for temporary borrowing. He cited cash reserves of $25 million in Northampton County and $20 million in Lehigh County.

• 40-hour work week: Council's plans to discuss a proposed personnel code amendment requiring employees to work 40 hours per week to be eligible for health-care benefits were put on hold.

County employees work 32.5 to 40 hours per week, depending on the position and department. Union employees would not be impacted until their collective-bargaining agreements expire.

County Solicitor David Schwager said the ordinance might contradict President Barack Obama's health care law, which says employers with 50 or more employees must offer insurance to full-time employees in 2014. The federal act defines full-time employees as those who work 30 hours or more per week, he said.

Schwager said he will further research the law and present options to council.

Citizens Edward Chesnovitch and Renee Ciaruffoli Taffera urged council to proceed with the change and address the new law when it takes effect.

• Controller salary hike
: A majority of council voted to increase the elected controller's salary from $36,562 to $64,999 for the controller elected next November.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban unsuccessfully pushed for an added requirement that the next controller pay 20 percent toward health care.

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