WILKES-BARRE – As expected, City Council Friday approved Mayor Tom Leighton's revised 2013 budget, raising property taxes 26 percent and leaving 11 furloughed firefighters in limbo.
Council voted 4-0 to approve the near $44 million spending plan.
Council President Mike Merritt and council members Maureen Lavelle, George Brown and Tony George voted for the budget with the hope that the 11 furloughed fire fighters will return to work soon.
Councilman Bill Barrett did not attend the meeting. Merritt said he was excused to tend to personal business out of town.
We all want the firefighters back on the job, Merritt said after the meeting. And we are all sensitive of the financial effects this tax increase will have on property owners.
Mike Bilski, president of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Leighton picked the worst month to implement the layoffs. He said by reducing the department to 53 people, coupled with scheduled holiday vacations, more than 100 shifts had to be covered.
Bilski said he didn't have an exact dollar amount, but when asked if it would have been cheaper to keep the 11 furloughed fire fighters on the job, he said, Yes, definitely.
Rob Stehle would be the first firefighter called back if Leighton decides to begin that process. Stehle said two firefighters are expected to retire soon, but the mayor has not committed to filling those positions, let alone call back the 11 that have been laid off.
Am I optimistic? No, not really, Stehle said. I hope all of us get called back soon.
Merritt said council went back and forth with the administration since the original budget was proposed on Oct. 15 calling for a 30-mill tax hike, which amounts to a 31 percent hike.
Merritt said he felt Leighton was receptive to council's suggestions.
There were some suggestions the mayor didn't consider, but most were accepted or at least adjusted, Merritt said. If we didn't approve this budget, it would have reverted back to the original proposal.
Several taxpayers addressed council to oppose the budget.
James Gallagher of Poplar Street said more cuts could have been found.
If you're raising taxes, you're taking my money – our money, he said.
Councilman Brown said more than $100,000 in cuts proposed by council were lopped off the original budget.
Jim Burden of Taft Street said many city residents are on fixed incomes and a tax hike will hit them hard.
We have a lot of elderly property owners, he said. They can't afford this.
Burden questioned the city's rental of barriers around the condemned Hotel Sterling, saying it would have been cheaper to purchase them. The city pays $5,200 per month to rent the equipment.
Leighton said he never expected the barriers to be needed for an extended period of time.
But why is it always up to us to pay? Burden asked. Why not shift some of the burden off of the homeowners.
Bob Kadluboski questioned the city's pension plan. He said part-time elected officials should not be afforded a pension benefit, and Merritt agreed.
You're right, Mr. Kadluboski. The city is pension heavy, Merritt said. We have a government that is not affordable. Something needs to be changed and changed drastically.
Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association, said when taxes go up, services shouldn't be cut.
We should have our firefighters back immediately, he said.
George said he was told the fire fighters would be called back.
But that may not happen immediately, he said. We are down 16 fire fighters – the 11 furloughed and the five that retired.
Leighton defended the city's financial condition, saying the uncertainty of the $1 million uncollected CENTAX revenue has hurt the city. He said the city collect 90 percent of its property taxes.
If we collected 100 percent, we wouldn't have to lay off fire fighters, he said.
Betsy Summers, who ran for the mayor's seat and lost, said with rising taxes, people are leaving the city and property values are declining.
More slumlords will be buying our properties, she said. It's time to cut government – cut City Hall. You're killing this city.
In: 25-mill increase in property taxes – an average increase per household of about $150.
Out: $200,000 from the Summer Workers Program; original number reduced from $350,000 to $150,000.
In: 3 percent raises for all city employees since no concessions were offered.
Out: A drop in anticipated real estate transfer tax
In: The money to pay the 11 furloughed firefighters.
Out: The date that those fire fighters would return to work
In: An increase in the annual sewer rental and maintenance fee from $40 to $50 for all residential properties and small commercial establishments.
In: An increase in restaurant licensing fees to $300 for the initial issuance and $200 per annual renewal.