Luzerne County 2016 budget still a work in progress

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -

With two weeks left before the Dec. 15 budget adoption deadline, Luzerne County Council members continued their painstaking line-by-line review of proposed expenses and revenue for five hours Tuesday night.

To date, the council has adopted amendments cutting $586,754 in expenses from the proposed $138.5 million general fund operating budget.

It’s unlikely a council majority will support the 8 percent tax hike recommended by county Manager Robert Lawton, which would generate about $8.2 million in new revenue.

Lawton wants to use around $2.5 million to cover increased expenses and $5.7 million to help reduce the county’s remaining $13.1 million deficit. The $5.7 million slated for the reserve would include $4.7 million from the halted homestead tax break on primary residences, which was used for operating expenses this year.

Councilman Rick Morelli has proposed an amendment to cancel the depositing of $5.7 million into the reserve to help avoid a tax hike.

It’s unclear if a majority will back Morelli’s proposal because the council won’t hold another voting meeting until Dec. 15, the night the budget must be adopted.

Councilman Stephen J. Urban also has proposed $1.15 million in cuts in court branches, but court officials say the move would hinder operations of essential judicial services.

Under the home rule charter, the current spending plan automatically remains in effect another year if a council majority fails to pass a budget by Dec. 15. However, the charter also allows the council to reopen and amend the budget by Feb. 15 in the years following council elections. Jane Walsh Waitkus, Eugene Kelleher and Robert Schnee will take office in January, replacing Morelli, Urban and James Bobeck.

Councilman Tim McGinley asked Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri what will happen if a budget doesn’t pass in two weeks.

Without a tax hike or other solutions, Pedri said money would have to be identified to cover unavoidable increases in 2016, including $1.8 million in union-negotiated pay raises, $1.7 million for rising health insurance costs and a $700,000 employee pension subsidy hike.

However, Lawton noted these increased costs will be offset next year by $2.5 million in savings from the 2015 debt restructuring and $500,000 in reduced prison inmate health care costs.

In addition to keeping the homestead money for operating expenses, the council could revoke its October decision to put $3.8 million in debt restructuring savings into the reserve to reduce the deficit, officials said.

The council is scheduled to hold its final public budget hearing and budget work session on Dec. 8.

The county 911 department was one of the few to report revenue increases, largely due to a new recalculated state fee on land and wireless phone lines. Although 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans suggested some minor adjustments Tuesday, the proposed budget says 911 revenue will increase from $5.32 million to $8.4 million in 2016 while spending will rise from $6.99 million to $9.54 million.

Rosencrans said he wants to use some of the money to boost the $25,500 starting salary for telecommunicators, saying competition from Lackawanna County and others that pay more is hampering his efforts to attract and retain workers.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

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