Top 10, #3: Police cuts cap off tumultuous 2013 in Shamokin
SHAMOKIN - It was a tumultuous 2013 at City Hall, no more so than on Dec. 23, when five employees were furloughed, including two full-time police officers, and two other positions were reduced to part-time.
The move drew the scorn of the public, who largely believed city officials had dropped the ball and, as a result, jeopardized public safety.
The cuts were made by city council as part of a larger effort to balance a 2014 budget that had a deficit exceeding $616,000. More than half the deficit was erased through adjustments in revenue and expenses, including the termination of health benefits offered to city council as well as the controller and solicitor.
Furloughs were announced in the 11th hour, although the writing was on the wall in the preceding days while council tried in vain during budget sessions to further trim spending.
Officials' efforts were complicated because City Clerk Steve Bartos went on medical leave in mid-November. He appeared at a court hearing on the city's behalf and reportedly had some input on the tentative budget and answered councilmen's questions, but he hasn't attended public meetings and hasn't yet returned to work full-time.
Adoption of the 2014 budget came 11 days after a county judge's favorable ruling allowing Shamokin to seek an $800,000 loan to pay its unpaid bills from 2013. Court permission was also granted in December for the sixth year running to allow Shamokin to levy property taxes at 30 mills, 5 mills above the maximum allowed by Third Class City code.
Coming into 2013, city officials had already taken heat for granting a $9,000 raise to its city clerk. It didn't subside after it was learned Bartos' wife, Meg, who unsuccessfully ran for the office of county prothonotary, was paid $2,500 after failing to submit on time a grant application that, if successful, would have funded the salary and benefits for a police officer.
Further fanning the flames was a proposal that city council take a $2.8 million loan backed by U.S. Department of Agriculture to renovate the American Legion Building. Bartos pursued the project at council's behest, although it began as a project potentially funded by grants before it continued on as a loan proposal. City council had moved in 2012 to adjust its tax levy to support such a loan, shifting money from debt service to recreation.
The loan proposal was shot down by council in November as a clearer fiscal picture came into focus.
The city twice failed in September and October to pay its health insurance broker and was kicked out of a municipal health insurance cooperative. Officials scrambled to find a new plan while remaining with the same provider, Capital BlueCross, but early termination costs and contributions toward employee deductibles would add to the mounting debt.
When December arrived, the city's final installment on a Tax Revenue Anticipation Note was due, as was its minimum municipal obligation for employee pensions. Another large payment was due for a botched grant from years prior, along with more than $100,000 in miscellaneous unpaid bills.
An out-of-budget expense exceeding $100,000 was already paid out by the city regarding the emergency demolition of a Shamokin Street building that had collapsed in 2012. Questions remain, however, as to how the rest of the debt amassed.
The city sought and was granted permission to seek a loan to make good on its 2013 debt. When it came time on Dec. 23 to pass a balanced budget, addressing its anticipated debt in the new year, the public's patience had eroded and its anger boiled over.
A hostile meeting was held in the second-floor meeting room, filled to the 64-person capacity. A line of people, two to a step, winded out of the meeting room, down a staircase and out of City Hall onto a sidewalk on Lincoln Street, where dozens more people had gathered. City officials were roundly criticized for the furloughs.
Councilman William Milbrand, who won election in November by a single vote to become the city's next mayor, will be sworn into office Monday. He will be joined by two new council members, Barbara Moyer and Charlie Verano. R. Craig Rhoades remains. The fifth position, vacated by current councilman Milbrand's election, will be appointed.
Milbrand has said he will push the new council to reopen the budget and attempt to make further adjustments before a Feb. 15 deadline toward restoring some of the furloughed employees.