First Posted: 1/31/2014
After past picketing and collectively attending public meetings, Luzerne County union workers have resorted to a newspaper advertisement warning of danger from mass layoffs once again on the table.
The safety of residents would be jeopardized by additional cuts in road and bridge, courthouse security, the sheriff’s office and other departments, says the advertisement by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1398.
“Many offices are struggling as it is right now to perform the duties of their departments. I can’t even imagine what would happen with further cuts to employees,” AFSCME union head Paula Schnelly said Monday.
The union lost 23 workers to furloughs last month to help close a 2014 budget shortfall.
New Councilwoman Kathy Dobash’s proposed amendments for across-the-board cuts to erase the county’s 8-percent tax increase or reduce the hike to 3 percent would result in “well over” 100 layoffs, county Manager Robert Lawton told council last week.
Dobash has stressed to the administration she does not intend to cut staff as part of her proposal, but Lawton told council personnel is the only immediate, big-ticket target when funds budgeted for pensions, debt and many other fixed operating costs can’t be touched.
A public hearing on budget amendments is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Fewer county workers
Several county managers say they’ve been struggling to cover mandated services with fewer workers due to last month’s layoffs and vacant position eliminations.
“It’s management by crisis. The problem is, everybody’s idea of a crisis is different depending on their needs,” said Assessment Director Tony Alu.
The assessor’s office lost two staffers in layoffs and a vacant position, leaving Alu and 15 employees to handle records and changes to 166,000 properties.
While he sympathizes with council members struggling to avoid or minimize the tax hike, Alu said colleagues in other counties have questioned how he keeps up with the work with his staff size.
“The staff is doing the best it can to rise to the challenge. We’re constantly adjusting priorities, but how long can that go on?” he said.
The recording of deeds — and thus the resulting revenue — has slowed down because Alu had to reassign one of the staffers who handled certification of property identification numbers required on deeds and other documents.
Alu said this worker must answer phones and help customers who visit the office, because he doesn’t want to compromise their service. Field appraisers have been sharing the office workload, but Alu said they must concentrate first on adding new construction to the tax rolls to boost the tax base.
Judicial Services and Records Division Head Joan Hoggarth was criticized by some for halting a passport service in the prothonotary’s office and requesting appointments from attorneys and family members to file paperwork for new estates in the wills office.
Hoggarth said the lean staff has forced her to eliminate optional services like passports because she needs the employee assigned to that duty to appear in court to process paperwork as mandated. She can’t force clients to make appointments for estates but said those who do may avoid lengthy waits.
Some other staff reduction developments in offices under her control:
• Mail often piles up in wills because only two workers remain in that office, though a deeds employee was assigned one day a week to help catch up.
• Sheriff deputies are spending less time serving civil documents due to the loss of part-timers who handled prisoner transport.
• Court officials have expressed concerns about paperwork processing delays and other service issues in clerk of courts.
“I worry sooner or later there is going to be a problem because there are not enough people to get the mandated work done,” Hoggarth said.
Citizens also have complained about service delays for dog licenses.
The county election board issued a letter last month saying it will be “next to impossible” to conduct the May primary election without major problems due to the layoff of an election worker on top of four staff reductions in the office last fall.
Schnelly said the ad was an attempt to communicate a message in a charged atmosphere.
“I often think showing our faces infuriates people who are anti-county employee,” Schnelly said. “This was a quiet way to make a point.”
The ad says union members are local residents who contribute to the economy, including some volunteers. Workers are “not the cause of past mismanagement of the county finances,” it says.
“Yes, we are union members and we negotiate for fair contracts for our members; however some members of council seem to think unions and fair wage are a bad thing.”