WILKES-BARRE – City Council will vote on a 2013 revised city budget today that will raise real estate taxes by 26 percent, keep 11 firefighters laid off indefinitely and boost fees for services.
Once again it's a slap in the face of the taxpayers, said Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers' Association. City Councilman Tony George offered up some good recommendations, but the mayor and the administration just do what they want to do. The taxpayers have to pony it up, as usual.
Mayor Tom Leighton said the 11 firefighters will be called back – the positions are in the budget – but he can't say when. Marie McCormick, city administrator, said the city is still owed about $1 million in earned income tax revenue from CENTAX.
The mayor's intent is to bring back the firefighters as soon as possible, she said.
The biggest increase in revenue is in the property tax. In the 2012 budget, the city expected to receive $8 million in property taxes. With the 25-mill increase – bringing the millage rate from 96.63 to 121.63 mills – the anticipated revenue is set at $9.95 million.
The city has said a 25-mill increase means the average real estate tax increase would be about $2.94 per week, or about $152 annually.
City Council provided Leighton with a list of suggestions for where cuts could be made. McCormick said the suggestions were reviewed – some were accepted in full, others partially, and some were rejected.
Sorick said he was concerned about the firefighters and many city residents he has spoken to want the 11 called back. The department is currently at 53 members – far too few, Sorick said.
It's no secret that this mayor has had it out for our fire department for a long time, Sorick said. He wants a volunteer fire department and he won't rest until he gets one.
Leighton said he wants to bring back the 11 furloughed firefighters, but he has no timetable. He said the CENTAX money has to be recouped and the city's revenue stream has to be solid.
I don't want to call them back and then lay them off again in November, he said. All of these cuts have been very painful. We have to provide services the public wants and expects.
Leighton said he has reduced City Hall staff by 38 jobs since he took office in 2004. He said salaries and benefits keep going up, but the city's revenue stream has not kept pace.
Leighton said restoring the city's credit rating has resulted in lower borrowing rates, saving taxpayers significant dollars.
That's tax money, he said.
Councilman George said he was happy with the budget after giving it a review.
He's bringing the firefighters back and he didn't touch the police, George said. Things are tough, but I'm OK with it.
George noted that traveling expenses for council were reduced from $10,000 to $1,000 and memberships in the Pennsylvania League of Municipalities ($17,000) and the National League of Cities ($3,813) were retained.
I guess they feel those are important and needed, he said.
The former police chief said he intends to discuss his idea of eliminating four line chief positions in the fire department and reassigning them to other jobs that would have them on the street fighting fires.
I want to see something done about that, he said.
Council President Mike Merritt said he is teetering on the budget. He said he hasn't made up his mind on how he will vote.
I want to see all 11 firefighters called back, he said. With a 25-mill increase, I haven't been given any dates when they will be called back or how many. I know with a 30-mill tax hike, all of them were being called back.
Merritt said he will keep reviewing the budget right up until tonight's meeting and then see what happens.
I've said this before, but we have a government we can't afford, Merritt said. We've got to look into long-term sustainability. I intend to focus on that in 2013.
Merritt said the days of lifetime benefits are over.
That's just not happening in the real world, he said. Until we all realize that and people accept it, it will be a struggle. But I do know we can't go on this way.
Merritt said he voted against a tax hike a couple of years ago, but he accepts it this time around.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, he said.
Wilkes-Barre City Council meets at 6 p.m. today at City Hall, 4th floor, Council Chambers. Council is expected to vote on the 2013 budget.