Shamokin furloughs four officers, street department worker to balance budget
SHAMOKIN - Shamokin City Council voted Monday evening on a $2.5 million balanced spending plan at the expense of five city employees, including two full-time police officers, who were furloughed.
The budget, which stands balanced at $2,518.006.01 was passed on a 4-1 vote; Mayor George Rozinskie and councilmembers Bill Milbrand, William Strausser and R. Craig Rhoades voted for the budget. Councilmember Mike Snyder was the lone dissenting vote.
To help balance the budget, council voted to furlough 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. That vote was also 4-1; Snyder voted no and Rhoades voted "yes, but with extreme protest."
Other personnel moves made included 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.
The personnel changes go into effect Jan. 1.
Shamokin City Police Chief Ed Griffiths said Friday he was originally told six officers were going to be laid off, but other spending cuts made in the interim reduced that number to four, saving the jobs of Patrolman Raymond Siko II and William Zalinski.
The police portion of the city's budget for 2013 was about $1.2 million. For 2014, it's estimated at $1,148,139.65.
At Monday's meeting, Milbrand spoke on behalf of council, saying the budget and furloughs are necessary to keep Shamokin financially solvent.
"We have to pass this budget and have to announce these furloughs to have a balanced budget in the required time frame," Milbrand said. "It's very important that we do that in order to receive the benefits that we need to keep the city afloat."
Milbrand was referring to the annual Tax Revenue Anticipation Note (TRAN) and an $800,000 loan needed to pay bills due by the end of 2013. Council is still waiting for word that the loan will be approved.
Milbrand said Friday he believes Susquehanna Bank, the entity to which the city applied for the loan, is waiting to see a balanced budget before approving the loan.
Without a balanced budget, the city runs the risk of bankruptcy, Milbrand said.
"There will be no paychecks for any city employee until the first revenues start coming in, which could be around March," he said.
Shamokin's next mayor called the furloughs "temporary," but could not say when the workers could be called back, much to the chagrin of the audience.
"Way to go, Mr. Mayor," someone from the audience yelled.
"You think this is fun for me? I have friends in the department," Milbrand answered. "You think I like furloughing people? You're wrong. We will work on this, but we need time, and we need to pass this budget now."
Council, with new members Barbara Moyer and Charlie Verano and one vacant seat, can reopen the budget and change it until Feb. 15.
The tentative budget was approved at a Nov. 27 meeting on a 5-0 vote. Revenue was projected at $2,316,506.01 and expenses at $2,932,587.58, resulting in the $616,081.58 shortfall.
A number of cuts and some revenue adjustments were made leading up to Thursday's budget meeting, when the furloughs were discussed to make up the final approximately $300,000 deficit.
While much of the public comment at Monday's meeting was made in support of the police department, some of it was directed at the only empty chair on the dais, which belongs to City Clerk Steve Bartos.
Bartos has been on medical leave since early November for rotator cuff surgery. He has become the target of criticism for those who believe he was misleading council about the condition of the city's finances, and because he has been mostly out of touch during the difficult process of getting the $800,000 loan and cutting a $616,000 deficit to balance the 2014 spending plan.
One of the loudest cheers in the crowd occurred when someone yelled, "Are we going to furlough the guy that caused some of the these problems that isn't here right now?"
Bartos, in part, blames the shortfall on past practices by city officials, who he said used the TRAN to pay bills carried over from the preceding year, in addition to expenses in the current year's budget. He said the practice has been used since at least since 2008. He said an analysis by the Pennsylvania Economy League in 2008 predicted the city would have deficits that would grow each year, up to a projected $819,501.
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 Saylor continued the hearing for a day after requesting more specifics about the city's financial records.
Otherwise, Bartos has declined comment other than to say through e-mail that he is on a "doctor's supervised medical leave."
Griffiths last week criticized Bartos and his wife, Meg, for "dropping the ball" on a COPS grant that would have provided funding to cover three years of salary and benefits for a new patrolman. The Bartoses defended their efforts to submit the grant, providing copies of e-mails and other details they say showed they went out of the way to try to get the money despite trouble with the application website. They also noted their past work in obtaining grants for various community projects, some of the work done for free.
Chief speaks up
Before the vote was taken on the furloughs Monday, Griffiths spoke and said he'd speak his mind even if it meant council would demote him as a result.
"These guys have bent over backwards for the city. They have switched shifts in order to save overtime. We didn't get uniforms this year. We do a calendar to help raise funds for the department," Griffiths said. "We are the only department that generates revenue in the city."
He then turned his attention to the absent Bartos, saying he would make the remarks to the city clerk's face if he could.
"The guy that got us in this mess should be here, answering these questions," Griffiths said. "When you turn $150,000 into a $600,000 shortfall, something is wrong. We are going to cut a secretary that pays taxes in the city of Shamokin, but we continue to pay a person that doesn't live here, that started out part time, under a temporary program, but is now full time with benefits. It's just not right."
After Griffiths said his piece, a member of the audience said, "If they demote you, we will be back here supporting you."
At the end of the meeting, Scandle, who arrived at the meeting late because he was representing the department at a children's Christmas party, asked "When do Rhodes and myself lose our jobs with no pay and no benefits?"
Milbrand started to speak about the furloughs, but Rhodes cut him off, saying, "Don't even say a word, Bill."
In other business
The board adopted the 2014 tax levy ordinance of 47.35 mills, appointed Strausser, director of accounts and finance, as an authorized signer of documents while Bartos is on medical leave.
The board also approved the resignations of Moyer from the city planning commission and Verano from the city's zoning board and redevelopment authority. Both resignations will be effective Dec. 31. The two will join city council Jan. 6.
Milbrand's resignation from city council, effective Jan. 6 when he becomes mayor, was also approved.