SHAMOKIN - City council members agreed to eliminate health benefits for elected and administrative officials as a way to reduce a $616,081.58 shortfall in the 2014 budget.

At Thursday's special budget meeting, the city council members said approximately $50,000 will be saved if health insurance is dropped for the elected positions of mayor, four council seats and controller and the hired position of solicitor H. Robert Mattis.

Mayor George Rozinskie and council members William Strausser and Michael Snyder will not be returning to council next year.

Returning are Councilman William Milbrand, who will resign to take on the newly-elected position of mayor, and Councilman R. Craig Rhoades. Incoming council members are Charlie Verano and Barbara Moyer.

The health benefits were the center of a Right to Know controversy in which Northumberland County Commissioner Stephen Bridy was denied access to the information by the city. A Lycoming County judge ruled Nov. 22 that Bridy is entitled to the information.

More cutting, few answers

While the health benefits will be one chunk out of the deficit, the five council members and treasurer Brenda Scandle made no additional steps Thursday night during the 100-minute meeting to solve the budget crisis.

With revenues projected at $2,316,506.01 and expenses at $2,932,587.58, the council members called the tentative budget "sloppy" and criticized the absent City Clerk Steve Bartos for not being at the meeting to answer their questions.

Bartos, who had been scheduled to return to work Thursday, was on medical leave.

"I don't think any of these figures are correct. I don't know how we're going to figure this out in a few days," Milbrand said.

Milbrand, who noted he uses QuickBooks to manage budgets at his bus company, said he couldn't make "heads or tails" out most of the information when he reviewed the budget using the same program.

Milbrand doesn't like that money is being used from one department's allocation to pay off another department's bill.

Scandle said Bartos instructed her to transfer money from a contingency fund to pay for expenses and then pay it back later.

"We were bumming from Peter to pay Paul," she said.

Scandle, who noted she deals with revenue while Bartos deals with expenses, said she doesn't know how to answer the questions.

"All I know is I can't believe this. I've never seen a budget like this in my life," she said.

Snyder asked what money would be saved if the pool is closed down next year. Scandle said the pool cost $127,148 to run in 2013, but council members questioned it, and no definite answer was provided.

Milbrand suggested accepting an offer from Northumberland County Commissioners to have the county's budget team look at the city's budget with a "fresh set of eyes," but again no definite answer was given.

"They'll ask the same questions we're asking and we won't have answers. We know it's not right, but we don't know why it's not right," Strausser said.

Rhoades said they were "spinning their wheels" by discussing the budget without Bartos present.

Council will meet again today at 10 a.m. and at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, but they added three more special meetings next week: 6:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Milbrand told the mayor to tell Bartos to be at the meeting because "I'm not going to waste my time if the city clerk isn't here to answer our questions."

The preliminary budget is 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.