SHAMOKIN - City council will meet twice this month to work on eliminating a $616,000 deficit in the 2014 preliminary general fund budget.

The meetings will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 12 and Dec. 18.

A council workshop was held Wednesday, one week after the preliminary budget was adopted, however no substantial discussion was had on proposed changes to next year's spending plan.

Revenues are projected at $2,316,506.01 and expenses projected at $2,932,587.58 leaving a shortfall of $616,081.57.

"When I looked at it," Council William Milbrand said of the preliminary budget adopted Nov. 27, "there's only a few places that I can see where we can make any cuts."

The 2014 tax levy and general fund budget must be in place by Dec. 30, solicitor H. Robert Mattis said.

Should council discuss layoffs and salary cuts to specific individuals during the two upcoming special budget meetings, Mattis said an executive session could be held. However, he said any talk of general budget issues, including personnel issues not individually specific, must be had in public.

The mayor and each council member have a department or area of service that they oversee: Milbrand, parks and recreation; R. Craig Rhoades, public safety; Michael Snyder, public works; William Strausser, public finance, and Mayor George Rozinskie, police department.

Milbrand said council and the mayor must meet individually with department heads to discuss budgetary issues before coming together as a group to adjust the preliminary budget. Though some city officials in attendance at Wednesday's meeting were under the impression that the budget would be worked on, Strausser said it couldn't since all the "principals" weren't at the meeting.

City Clerk Steve Bartos is on medical leave. Treasurer Brenda Scandle worked on the preliminary budget. Bartos returns to City Hall on Dec. 12.

Controller Gary Haddock expressed concern about updates to accounts payable. He said bills aren't input soon enough to allow a "full picture of what is due."

"This has been a thorn in my side," he said. "The last time I looked, we're at $150,000 sitting back here that's not being paid."

Those bills, which Milbrand put closer to $100,000, will be paid if the city is successful in its bid for a loan to cover "unfunded debt." The city is seeking an $800,000 loan to cover unpaid bills, and it needs permission of the county court. (Please see accompanying article.)

Milbrand, the mayor-elect, asked for some time to allow him to assume office next month. He said he understands the concern and it will be addressed.

Debt held over from one year to the next seems a customary practice in City Hall. Haddock said it's been the case during his first four years as controller, a position to which he was re-elected this fall. Snyder said it occurred in each of his eight years on city council.

"This is the first year of eight years that I've been involved that they will" be paid before year's end, Snyder said. "In fact the amount that was being carried over went down in the year's I've been here. It was bigger."

Milbrand asked Scandle about the collection of city taxes, and she said revenue has remained "steady."

But both expect tax rates to increase in 2014.

The real estate millage won't budge because it can't get any higher. It's been 30 mills the past five years, five mills above the maximum allowed, and if a county judge sides with the City of Shamokin later this month, it will remain at 30 mills in 2014.

What could increase is the debt service tax. It's assessed at 6.86 mills in 2013 and also is based on property value.

Milbrand recommends transferring 4.028 mills from the recreation millage - leaving 3 mills for that tax - to debt service. That would raise that millage to 11.068. But 13 mills are needed for debt service next year, including to cover the loan for "unfunded debt." That leaves potential for a tax increase of at least 1.932 mills - or $1.932 for each $1,000 of assessed value on city properties. If a property is assessed at $25,000, the discussed increase would be $48.30 to the owner's tax bill.

"Before I'd raise taxes, I'd close the pool," Snyder said.

Scandle previously said the swimming pool lost $80,000 in 2013. Bartos had previously put that figure at closer to $100,000.

"How is this gonna be balanced by Dec. 31?" said Charlie Verano, an incoming councilmember.

Verano and fellow councilmember-elect Barbara Moyer take office on Jan. 6 during a 10 a.m. reorganization meeting at City Hall. Snyder asked if they'd be eligible to attend executive sessions during this month's budget meetings - sessions that are closed to the public - and Mattis said they would be.

The preliminary budget is now available for public review. A special meeting of city council will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 30 to vote on a final version of a 2014 general fund budget.

City council will meet at 7 p.m. Monday in City Hall for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting.