Northumberland County budget passed, but not without further drama
SUNBURY - Northumberland County commissioners adopted an $82.3 million preliminary budget for 2013 Thursday morning on a split vote, but not before more dissension arose, despite a plea by Vinny Clausi to make peace and move forward.
Clausi was joined by Stephen Bridy in voting in favor of the spending plan, which is projected to include a 2.5-mill increase. Commissioner Richard Shoch opposed it, and later voted against adopting next year's schedule of county meetings because he believes four
meetings rather than two should be held in the evening to better accommodate the public. The schedule of meetings was approved by Bridy and Clausi.
Shoch said his reasons for voting against the budget remain the same as what he presented last week. He said he can't "in good conscience" vote for a budget that increases taxes and debt burden until Clausi reimburses the taxpayers or puts in escrow a combined $6.7 million for what he described as his "excessive and unnecessary costs associated with the secretive, belligerent and self-absorbed style of governance."
911 adds $10M
The budget includes $10 million for a capital improvement project involving federal-mandated upgrades to the county 911 communications center that must be completed by Dec. 31, 2013.
The projected 11 percent property tax increase is expected to generate $1.85 million since one mill is equivalent to $740,000. But commissioners noted the collection rate for each mill usually comes out to $700,000 because some people don't pay their taxes.
Total millage would rise from 20.318 to 22.818, which will remain the same for at least the next three years under a financial plan outlined in June by Clausi. He said, at the time, if the county did not raise taxes and borrow money, it would have a $40 million deficit by 2022 because health care, pension contributions, salaries and other costs continue to rise.
The county raised taxes by 1.95 mills in this year's budget and, by state code, cannot exceed 25 mills.
County budget director Jeff McClintock said the proposed millage increase is subject to change, because the county is still exploring options to increase revenue.
The budget must be advertised and made available for public inspection for 20 days in compliance with county code. The final spending plan must be approved by Dec. 31.
Prior to voting on the budget, Clausi told Shoch, "I want to make peace so we can function better. We must stop this bickering. The allegations are over and done with. It's time to move forward."
Clausi said he was willing to change the dates of two commissioners' meetings in April and July at the administration center so Shoch could attend them. On Tuesday, Shoch failed to second Bridy's motion to pass the budget and adopt the schedule of meetings, prompting Thursday's special meeting.
Shoch said Tuesday he voted against the schedule of meetings because the dates in April and July conflicted with meetings he had in Point Township, where he serves as solicitor for the board of supervisors. He claimed Clausi purposely changed the meeting dates to cause a conflict with his schedule.
When asked by citizen Jeff Robol, of Milton, if he is committed to having more commissioners' meetings in the evening if they are well attended, Bridy said, "Definitely."
Clausi said evening meetings may cost the county more money, but Shoch and Robol both said that wouldn't be the case because many of the county workers who attend the meetings are salaried employees who don't qualify for overtime.
Shoch recommended holding some evening meetings in buildings like the Northumberland County Career and Arts Center in Shamokin to accommodate the public. He said the costs would be minimal.
Clausi also said he is willing to re-establish regular staff meetings, which he reportedly discontinued upon becoming chairman of the board.
'Not going to cry'
Shoch, who noted he is always willing to meet with his fellow commissioners to discuss issues, said, "Honesty is the first thing that needs to happen. Mr. Clausi claims he wants to bury the hatchet even though he continued to make disparaging remarks about me at his press conference Wednesday and also tried to tarnish the image of Point Township again. This kind of nonsense has to stop, but I will continue to do things for the betterment of the county and present the facts to the citizens to show how Mr. Clausi misrepresents the public. He doesn't want things to come out that he has to explain himself on."
He added, "I will call people out when they aren't being truthful, but I'm not going to scream or cry."
Shoch's comment about not screaming or crying was in reference to Clausi's past actions, which included him crying at Wednesday's press conference upon claiming he couldn't take "mental abuse" from Shoch anymore. Shoch later referred to the press conference as a "theatrical dog and pony show" and "more smoke and mirrors to cloud the issues."
Bridy asked his fellow commissioners to "think long and hard" before voting on the budget and reminded them that county operations that affect many lives could be shut down if the budget isn't passed in time. He said only time will tell if decisions made by the commissioners will turn out to be right or wrong.
Clausi, who is recovering from surgery, urged Shoch and Bridy to take a vote on the budget because he was getting sick and had to go home. At one point, Clausi left the meeting room for about five minutes before returning to eventually vote on the budget and schedule of meetings.
After the meeting was adjourned, Clausi rushed out of the room before briefly returning with Bridy to make a comment about Shoch.
Once Clausi left again, Shoch said Clausi was acting like a child.
"He couldn't sit there and listen to the facts," he said.
Bridy and Shoch then got into a heated verbal exchange after Bridy accused Shoch of threatening to fire chief clerk Gary Steffen after Tuesday's meeting.
Shoch denied threatening to fire Steffen, but admitted confronting the chief clerk. He said Steffen knew a week ahead of time about a meeting with DCED regarding grant money the county has to pay back, but failed to notify the commissioner about the session until the afternoon it was being held. Shoch was still able to attend the meeting because he received notification from another source.
"I told Gary that this wasn't the first time we had a conversation about him not forwarding information on to me," Shoch said. "I told him I understood that he could get fired by them guys (Bridy and Clausi) if he didn't do what they wanted. I also told him I couldn't fire him, but I could call him out on these things."
Steffen reserved comment about the issue.
Bridy said, "Everything is a conspiracy with this guy (Shoch). You must have a twisted mind because you try to manipulate things. All I'm asking for is professionalism."
Shoch then told Bridy, "I'll put my record, documentation and credibility against yours any time. And I would be willing to take a polygraph test to show who is telling the truth. Whoever is lying, can turn in their resignation."