WILKES-BARRE – Council and the mayor Thursday night faced harsh criticism for next year's proposed budget with a 31 percent property tax increase residents said will force people to lose their homes and dig the city deeper into a financial hole.
Thirteen people spoke during the regularly scheduled council meeting and most of them objected to the $45.8 million spending plan Mayor Tom Leighton presented to council last week for adoption by the end of the year.
The speakers offered their help running the city, suggested what to cut and pleaded not to go ahead with a 30-mill increase the mayor said would cost the average property owner $183 more in taxes next year. The crowd of close to 50 people applauded after some of the remarks.
Debra Rontinonis told of the struggles she and her husband Steve have, saying we live not day by day, but minute by minute. He works at Tobyhanna Army Depot and spends $650 a month on gas to drive back and forth in a truck with no heat. She is out of work due to illness and injury and has $19,000 in medical bills.
We're hanging by a thread, Rontinonis said. When I saw in the paper things are going to go up more, I nearly dropped dead.
The couple has remortgaged their house and by the time it's paid off in 30 years Rontinonis will be 86.
I know I can't do it anymore and I don't want to lose my house, she said.
Calling himself the Voice of the Streets because he hears a lot from the people in the neighborhoods where he delivers mail, James Gallagher warned of dire consequences if the taxes are raised.
There's elderly in the city that are just barely getting by. There's families in the city that are barely getting by. Yet this administration wants to raise taxes again and people are going to be out their homes, Gallagher said. If they can't afford to live in their houses, they'll be empty and the city won't collect taxes as a result, he added.
He called for the mayor to show leadership and take a pay cut from his annual salary of $79,911.
If the mayor won't do so, Gallagher said, the taxpayers shouldn't be willing to budge.
Gallagher offered to do the mayor's job for half the pay and told council that they should be working for free.
Business owner Dale Harris estimated the mayor has raised taxes around 240 percent since taking office in 2004.
Harris said he's often asked for financial information from the city and was told it was immediately available. Yet, Harris, who described himself as a computer guy said he could call up on his computer within 15 seconds all the checks he's written since August 1990.
He too offered his help programming computers. You need a good guy to do it? I'll do it for 40 grand a year. Nobody ever does anything.
Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayer Association, said he found costs savings in a number of departments.
The Public Works budget includes $643,650 for street sweeping that doesn't get done, he said. It's time to end it.
Anna May Hirko told council she appeared on behalf of senior citizens in the city, some who were afraid of being laughed at if they spoke out at a public meeting.
The small cost-of-living increase she and others will receive in Social Security payments won't pay for the tax increase, she said.
Personally, I can't afford $180 to $200 in property taxes … plus $50 for garbage bags, which really hurts a lot of seniors, Hirko said.
She also thought the $30,000 the city budgeted for the St. Patrick's Day parade was excessive. I don't object to having the parade. It's just the cost of it., Hirko said.
Landlord Steve Franco said the tax increase would be passed on to his tenants and rents would rise between $50 and $100 a month.
Council members Bill Barrett and George Brown assured the residents council is taking the budget seriously and working together on it.
It's time to even start thinking outside of the budget as well for any other sources of revenue or any relief that any of us can come up with, Barrett said.
Brown added that council welcomed the suggestions from residents. Please don't think we're not listening to what you're saying, he said.
The mayor acknowledged a serious decision has to be made on the budget he presented.
The city has full-time fire, police and public works departments and provides professional services to its residents.
The city does more than other municipalities where residents pay an equal amount of tax, Leighton said. We may have to cut some of those services, and that's what council and the administration have to talk about, he said.