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Taxpayer group cites W-B debt

February 17. 2013 2:25AM
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WILKES-BARRE – The city's money woes go deeper than the earned income taxes still owed from a collection company, and concessions from the unionized workers alone won't solve the problems, taxpayer advocates said.

Short-term solutions involving givebacks ignore the bigger issues such as long-term debt, the advocates said.

City leaders have been meeting with union representatives to discuss potential concessions as an alternative to tax hikes while awaiting approximately $1.1 million in earned income taxes.

The taxes have been collected by the Centax-Don Wilkinson Agency.

However, the company hired by Luzerne County has been unable to distribute the money to municipalities and sold its contract to another firm, Berkheimer Associates, that is working toward a resolution.

The money is owed, but it is guaranteed, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association Frank Sorick said Friday.

"To blame Centax is ridiculous," he said. "(Centax is) bonded and that's money in the bank."

Instead, the city should address its growing long-term debt, added Karen Ceppa-Hirko, the association's treasurer.

Ceppa-Hirko, a critic of the administration of Mayor Tom Leighton, said he's using Centax as an excuse.

"I've been saying since October of last year that he needs to pay down the debt," she said.

The city's debt totaled $74.9 million at the start of this year and has grown to more than $100 million, she said.

A huge bond payment is due at the end of next month and the city does not have the money to pay it, she said.

The city's 2012 General Fund Budget listed the total debt service as $8.58 million including payments for pensions, capital projects and loans. Part of it has been paid, but by the bulk of it or $7.39 million is due by the end of the year.

Drew McLaughlin, city administrative coordinator, declined to answer questions about the city's finances.

"We are currently developing the 2013 budget and the mayor will lay out next year's spending plan in detail for the city council and the public," he said.

If the unions agree to concessions, the administration should reciprocate, said Sorick and Ceppa-Hirko.

"What are the people at City Hall giving up?" asked Ceppa-Hirko.

"How do we ask the people who literally clean up the city, who save our lives, to give back if the top-heavy city officials are not willing to give back themselves?" Sorick asked.

Jerry Lynott, a Times Leader staff writer, can be contacted at 570 829-7237.

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