Budget backlash expected at tonight's Shamokin City Council meeting
SHAMOKIN - The city's difficult budget season appears headed for a crescendo tonight.
At a 7 p.m. meeting at which city council is expected to approve a budget for 2014, balanced by cutting six members of the 13-man police force, a crowd is expected to express its displeasure about the city's fiscal behavior and, perhaps specifically, the actions of city clerk Steve Bartos.
Bartos, who has been on medical leave while council struggled through repeated budget meetings over the past month, has become the target of criticism for those who believe he misled city leaders as to the condition of the city's finances, then has been mostly out of touch during the difficult process to get a loan to pay off $800,000 in 2013 bills and cut a $616,000 deficit to balance the 2014 spending plan.
After the police cuts were first reported in Saturday's edition of The News-Item, the public has expressed outrage. As of Sunday evening, more than 1,200 people- a number growing at a rapid rate - had joined a Facebook page named "Support Shamokin's Finest." Comments range from general fear for public safety in the city and surrounding areas in response to the potential police force cuts, to criticism of those involved in balancing the city's budget and driving up debt. Commenters also encouraged the public to attend tonight's meeting and speak their minds. Another member of the page posted a sign donning the words "Oust Bartos" expressing her readiness to attend.
Also, voters at The News-Item's daily website poll overwhelmingly said they opposed the cuts, with 69 against, 17 for and one unsure as of Sunday evening.
The meeting is expected to attract a large crowd, many of whom disapprove of the cuts to the police department.
When contacted Sunday night, councilman and mayor-elect William Milbrand said if council approves the police furloughs to balance the budget, it doesn't necessarily mean the spending plan can't be reopened and revised in January in hopes of securing new revenue sources that could possibly result in some of the officers being recalled.
"We might have missed something in reviewing the budget, but our top priority right now is to balance the budget before the end of the year," he said.
Shamokin Police Chief Edward Griffiths, who was very critical of Bartos' management of the city's finances in Saturday's paper, said he's hopeful the furloughs can be avoided somehow so the city doesn't lose much-needed police protection as crime continues to increase, especially burglaries and drug-related offenses.
"I hope city officials can reign in the mistakes that have been made by Mr. Bartos," Griffiths said.
Mayor George Rozinskie reserved comment because a budget vote has not yet been taken.
Bartos also offered no comment about the budget or being the target of criticism by other city officials over the financial mess. Bartos, who remains on medical leave following rotator cuff surgery, did not say if he plans to attend tonight's meeting.
City officials have noted that the financial difficulties are in part a reflection of the city carrying debt year to year from one budget to another.
Bartos testified at a Dec. 12 court hearing regarding the $800,000 loan, saying he received permission from his doctor to attend the proceeding. He was asked to be there when Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor continued the hearing for a day after requesting more specifics about the city's financial records.