6 positions cut in Shamokin police department
SHAMOKIN - The city's budget ax has fallen squarely on the police department, which will lose six officers from a force of 13.
Chief Ed Griffiths said that's the news he received Friday after another city budget and executive session Thursday night. City council leaders wouldn't confirm the cuts, but Griffiths expects they'll be hearing about it from a public he expects will be up in arms when council meets to finalize the budget Monday.
"Public safety will be crippled here," he said.
He said "it's impossible to do 24-hour coverage" with just seven officers.
Griffiths put the blame on city clerk Steve Bartos, who has been out on medical leave for shoulder surgery through much of the city's tumultuous budget discussions over the past few weeks.
"Mr. Bartos's mismanagement is causing the employees to suffer," Griffiths said Friday, "and he wasn't even man enough to attend any of the sessions. A $600,000 deficit doesn't happen overnight," he said, alluding to the deficit projected in the city's first draft of a tentative budget Dec. 4.
Bartos did not return a phone call or email Friday seeking comment. He had appeared in court Dec. 12 at the city's request when a judge demanded details before approving an $800,000 loan for the city to pay its bills to get through 2013. The city, which is in the state's Early Intervention Program for distressed municipalities, also got court approval this week for its sixth consecutive boost of real estate millage above the legal limit.
Griffiths said he informed his staff earlier Friday, and that those with the lowest seniority, Cpl. Jarrod Scandle, patrolmen William Zalinski, Nate Rhodes and Raymond J. Siko II, and the
department's two special officers, Robert Searls and Norm Lukoskie, will no longer be employed.
Prior to Griffiths speaking publicly, Mayor George Rozinskie and William Milbrand, a current councilman and mayor-elect, said they would not comment about the cuts, saying only they believed they had a balanced budget.
Heading into an executive session Wednesday, the budget still had a $297,811 deficit.
Told later that Griffiths had discussed the cuts, Milbrand did comment.
"I was not happy about cutting personnel and it was a very difficult thing to do, but it had to be done to have a balanced budget," he said.
He said that is key to the city getting the loan, which it expected would be approved by Susquehanna Bank immediately after the court's OK, but has yet to happen a week later.
The city will use about $50,000 of the loan to finance the borrowing, Bartos has said previously. The money otherwise will pay approximately $220,000 in pension payments; $100,000 in miscellaneous expenses, including utility and maintenance costs for city-owned buildings; $70,000 in payroll and $50,000 for health care insurance.
"My assumption is that the bank is waiting to see if we can do a balanced budget before making a decision on the loan," Milbrand said.
The budget is expected to be voted on during a special meeting of Shamokin City Council Monday evening, and Griffiths said he has been receiving call after call as word of the cuts spread.
"I don't know if the room is going to be big enough to hold all the people," the chief said. "I'm certainly going to speak my mind about this Monday."
Rhodes, who was in the parking lot at the police station Friday afternoon, tried to take the news in stride.
"There's not much you can say," he said. "It's their decision, and there's nothing we can do to change it."
Griffiths said he didn't know when the cuts were expected to take place, but it's assumed that would be Jan. 1.
Not really saving
Griffiths said cuts to police won't save the city money because the special officers bring in some $100,000 in parking meter money and fines, and that patrol will no longer take place.
"That's going to be cut, because I have to keep officers for handling calls, not writing parking tickets," he said.
He said the department has responded to 6,501 calls placed to the county 911 service thus far in 2013 and another 292 to assist other municipalities. Add in visits to the station and local calls and the number of responses jumps to 14,822.
"I think we are the busiest police department in the county," he said.
Also, he said the department saved the city about $500,000 by not replacing three members lost to retirement.
He further criticized Bartos and his wife, Meg, for "dropping the ball" on a COPS grant that would have provided funding to cover three years of salary and benefits for a new patrolman - up to an estimated $450,000.
Prior to the grant deadline, Meg Bartos billed the city $2,500 as agreed for her work on the grant, and her husband cut the check the same day. But the grant ultimately wasn't submitted on time because of what the Bartoses said was computer trouble with the website.
A federal agency spokesman at the time confirmed Meg Bartos reported computer issues on deadline, but no other would-be applicant had trouble. And while the original grant deadline was extended because of a problem with the website, no problems were reported by anyone other than Bartos on the day of the deadline, June 4, the spokesman said.
Griffiths wasn't overly critical at the time, but he was Friday.
"She was calling me for more information about two hours before the grant application deadline," he said about Meg Bartos, showing a time stamp on his cell phone. "I got on the website easy at that time. That money could have helped us save an officer's job."
He said Steve Bartos has been too free with the city's limited resources.
"There are just too many consultant fees, engineering fees, Club Echo, and other projects that he needs to be held accountable for," Griffiths said. Noting his role as a member of the Shamokin Area School Board, "if we had these kind of problems in the district, the person responsible would be held accountable."
Milbrand said he, too, is "not happy" that Steve Bartos' hasn't been part of the budget process.
"He is an integral part of it all and he wasn't there for us," he said. "He asked for control of the city finances, and the city granted him leeway in that request."
Bartos testified at the court hearing regarding the loan as to his surgery and that he received permission from his doctor to appear in court. Attempts through email earlier this week to get more information about his possible return produced a response from Bartos that he is on a "doctor's supervised medical leave." He said he would not go on the record otherwise, and said his wife had to type his response.