Northumberland County commissioners vote to cut most salaries
SUNBURY - Northumberland County commissioners made history Wednesday night by reducing the salaries of most elected officials by $25,000 to $30,000 while requiring them to pay 50 percent of the county's contribution toward health benefits.
The only row officer to escape the salary cuts was Controller Tony Phillips, whose annual salary will remain at $56,676.
The $172,270 salary paid to District Attorney Tony Rosini is tied to the state rate paid to county judges and is not affected. By law, Rosini receives $1,000 less than the county judges.
Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy were heavily criticized by the majority of people in attendance at the public hearing and special meeting for approving the drastic cuts. Commissioner Richard Shoch opposed all the reductions.
After listening to derisive comments from a total of 17 people, including the affected row officers, Clausi and Bridy voted in favor of decreasing the commissioners' salaries from $61,000 to $31,500. The minimum salary they could have set for the position was $21,000.
Phillips' salary was automatically maintained after Clausi failed to receive a second from Bridy or Shoch to keep it the same. The salary could have been reduced to $19,000.
Coroner James F. Kelley's salary was slashed from $53,834 to $30,500. His salary could have been cut to $14,000.
The salaries for Prothonotary Kathleen Strausser, who is retiring at the end of the year, Register and Recorder Mary Zimmerman, Sheriff Chad Reiner and Treasurer Kevin Gilroy were each trimmed to $31,000.
The current salaries of Strausser and Zimmerman are $57,396, while Reiner and Gilroy both earn $53,834.
Bridy and Clausi voted to have all elected county officials pay 50 percent of the county's contribution toward health benefits and passed an ordinance establishing the salaries and benefits for the next term of each respective row office.
The salary changes for the commissioners, sheriff and treasurer will take effect in 2016, while the reductions for the coroner, register and recorder and prothonotary will be effective next year.
Currently, the county pays $695.76, $1,388.65 and $1,745.94 per month for single, two-party and family health care coverage, respectively, while elected officials contribute $108, $175 and $241 per month for the different plans. When they begin their new terms, elected officials will be required to pay $347.88, $694.32 and $872.97 per month.
Lead by example
Board chairman Clausi said he wanted to reduce the salaries of county officials four years ago, but didn't receive any support from then-Commissioners Kurt Masser and Frank Sawicki. As a commissioner, Clausi said he has operated the county like a business and that his record of uncovering corruption and laying off 130 employees speaks for itself.
At the beginning of the meeting, Clausi had chief clerk Gary Steffen read a prepared statement.
In the statement, Clausi says, "Many county employees have made great sacrifices or even lost their jobs the past few years with our budget crisis and cuts. No row officers have stepped forward with a plan to cut expenses in their offices or to cut their salaries to save an employee's job. Now, I believe is the time for the leaders - the row officers - to sacrifice. We have asked enough of our employees. We will be making some difficult decisions tonight, but first and foremost, we must keep our taxpayers in mind and save them money. I personally believe the example should be set at the top with the commissioners' positions. We should lead the way with cutting our own salaries the most."
Clausi said many row officers have worked hard over the years, while claiming many others have only worked on a part-time basis but expect full pay and benefits.
Bridy said the financial conditions of the county dictate the drastic reductions in salaries.
He said, "We have to lead by example. We are here to serve the taxpayers, not to fill our pocketbooks. We don't need career politicians. We need fresh ideas and fresh faces."
As he has at prior meetings, Shoch referred to the action by his fellow commissioners to slash salaries as another "dog and pony show." He said none of the commissioners from other counties or business people throughout the region believe cutting salaries was a good idea.
He said the drastic salary reductions will lead to theft and incompetence.
"You have to pay for quality workers and I believe this proposal is short sighted," he said. "No other county in the state has done it."
Row officers speak
Gilroy, Kelley, Reiner, Zimmerman and Strausser urged the commissioners to maintain their salaries during the public hearing and received great support from citizens who filled the meeting room.
Gilroy discussed his duties and accomplishments, which he said include taking over an office that was in turmoil and making it operate smoothly.
He said his office has saved the county more than $200,000 in salaries.
"I am a working treasurer, but I'm paid the lowest among treasurers in a fifth-class county," he said.
Kelley, who has been coroner for 12 years, said, "I love my job. I've given blood, sweat and tears to my profession and have always given back to the community in some way. Being a coroner isn't a 9 to 5 job. I'm on call every day. I handle between 450 and 500 cases a year while having only two deputies and no office staff. Death doesn't take a holiday. This isn't a part-time position. I've managed an efficient office to the highest degree of integrity and professionalism."
Reiner also said his position is full time and a "way of life" for him.
He said a reduction in salary would jeopardize the safety of citizens. Reiner encouraged the commissioners to allow taxpayers to vote on the issue through a referendum, and recommended the commissioners have an objective, independent analysis done on the row offices.
Zimmerman explained that she actually holds three positions - recorder of deeds, register of wills and clerk of orphan's court offices. She said Northumberland and Lycoming counties are the only fifth-class counties that still have the three offices under one department.
From 2008 to 2012, Zimmerman said her office collected more than $40 million that are distributed to the state, county, eight school districts and all of the cities, townships and boroughs in the county.
"I resent being referred to in the newspaper as a part-time official," she said. "I am currently running for my fourth term and I feel privileged that the electors have given me their stamp of approval. I have never considered myself a career politician."
Strausser said she was impressed by the unity displayed by the veteran row officers and public to turn out for what she called the "worst proposal the board of commissioners ever made."
"I was truly dedicated to this position and loved the work," she said.
After the meeting, Zimmerman said she was "shocked" by the decision to slash the salaries. "I feel I do a good job every day as a public servant and I don't know why I'm being punished for that."
Strausser said she was disappointed by the vote. She also was disappointed that neither of the prothonotary candidates in the Nov. 5 general election - Republican Justin Dunkelberger and Democrat Meg Bartos - spoke to the commissioners about the issue at the hearing.
Reiner added, "I'm disappointed in Clausi and Bridy. Everyone spoke highly of the row officers and great jobs we do every day. But they didn't listen to the will of the people. It just shows their arrogance. They had their minds made up and don't care about the citizens."