Mayor-elect holds out hope
SHAMOKIN - City council will have until Feb. 15 to reopen the 2014 general fund budget and make any potential changes, according to the mayor-elect.
William Milbrand said Tuesday he believes the new council will reopen the $2.5 million balanced budget that was adopted Monday. He was cautious about raising "false hope," but said he's optimistic.
"I am planning to seek outside help in looking over our budget to try and straighten things out," Milbrand said.
Milbrand will be sworn in as mayor and Barbara Moyer and Charlie Verano as council members on Jan. 6, all three beginning three-year terms. They'll join R. Craig Rhoades, who has two years remaining on his term. A vacancy for the fifth council seat must be filled by appointment.
Treasurer Brenda Scandle said Tuesday she believes the next iteration of council will revisit spending and revenue.
"We have a long road ahead of us," she said.
The budget was approved on a 4-1 vote, with Milbrand, Rhoades, Councilman William Strausser and Mayor George Rozinskie voting in favor. Councilman Michael Snyder dissented.
They began the budget process with a deficit exceeding $616,000. It was cut by more than half before furloughs were made definite: full-time police officers Cpl. Jarrod Scandle and Patrolman Nate Rhodes, part-time special officers Robert Searls and Norm Lukoskie and street department employee Ronald Kerstetter.
Milbrand said there were no positive takeaways from Monday's meeting, during which many from the public criticized and ridiculed city officials, including City Clerk Steve Bartos, who is out on medical leave, for their handling of municipal finances.
"I understand what their concerns are and we want to do everything we can for them. There would have been no reasoning with the public because they had their mind made up on what their agenda was, and rightfully so. They have a right to be concerned about losing police officers.
"To be honest, I don't want to lose police officers. Some of these guys are my friends. You think I would want to do this to my friends?" Milbrand said of Scandle and Rhodes. "There's two very good friends of mine who were left go, and who knows if they'll ever talk to me again. It's a job that I was elected to that I have to do, and I have to do it for the survival of the city."
The furloughs and other departmental reductions dropped the police department budget from $1,293,972.98 in the preliminary version to $1,148,139.65 in the final version, which still represents nearly 46 percent of city expenses.
Other personnel moves made include reducing the hours of code office secretary Kelly Seroski and the deputy treasurer, which is currently a vacant position, to part-time status with no benefits, and eliminating all medical and related benefits for members of city council, city controller and the city solicitor.
Final adjustments made to the budget on Monday included dropping the anticipated cost of an annual financial audit, lowering salaries for council members not expected to accept their annual stipend, reducing the cost of legal services expected from outside counsel and accounting for estimated revenue expected to be left over from funds other than the general fund.
Along with other cuts, it prevented the furlough of two additional full-time police officers, Patrolmen Raymond Siko II and William Zalinski.
The police department's union contract expires Jan. 1. An arbitration hearing is set for Feb. 28, according to Milbrand. He said both sides can attempt to negotiate prior to arbitration.
City council is still awaiting word from Susquehanna Bank on two loans, a $325,000 Tax and Revenue Anticipation Note (TRAN) and a $800,000 loan to pay the city's remaining expenses for 2013.
The TRAN is used in the first quarter to make payroll and other operating expenses ahead of the receipt of tax revenue in March.
Milbrand said a balanced budget, as painful as it was to come by, should weigh in the city's favor.
"If we do not have a balanced budget and we sacrifice the TRAN, nobody in this city would get a paycheck until March. Nobody was listening to that last night," he said.
As for the $800,000 loan, Milbrand said, "if we don't get it, the city's bankrupt."