Sunday, December 11, 2011

Outgoing Commissioners leaving a mess

This is a guest post from Wil Toole. Wil held various administrative positions in the City of Pittston and was a candidate for the new Luzerne County Council in the Primary. When it comes to county/municiple government he is one of the most knowledgeable people around.

Merry Christmas, You're Fired!

The outgoing County Commissioner's have finally outdone themselves. They have prepared a budget that if adopted would bring county government to its knees and bring the business of the people to a shattering halt.
This budget is far beyond what could even begin to resemble a working budget and in my mind is nothing less than a parting slap in the face to every Luzerne county resident.
I will put the cart in front of the horse and comment on the real problem of county finances. Simply put, it is the debt. The debt service in 2008 was budgeted at just over $1 million dollars. It jumped to $21.8 million in the 2011 budget and for 2012 the debt services is listed as $24.8 million dollars. And there in folks lies the problem. The solution is to remove the debt service from the general fund and treat it as the separate animal that it is. The problem was not addressed properly so as a quick fix, it must be seen as a separate issue and a debt reduction fund must be created with millage dedicated for that purpose. The general fund millage would be adjusted to reflect this change. The next step would be to renegotiate the entire debt and to try the debt reduction plan I offered two years ago. The practice of creating future debt must stop post haste and not a dollar should be borrowed that does not affect the health and safety of our residents. NO MORE SPENDING!
As you look at the current proposed budget, there was no thought or effort put into it. If there was then shame on the mini minds that created it. I will state a few examples of why the budget is unworkable.
On the expense side the budget goes against logic and prevents various departments from operating and in some cases lock horns with the law.
An example of ignoring the law would be the Court Stenographers. The 2011 budget is listed at just under 1.1 million dollars. They have spent as of October $876,532. The new budget is $750,286 which is a cut of 44.45%. The problem is that a court stenographer must be present and create a written record of every action taking place in the court system. This line item is designed to fail.
The Prothonotary's office was cut from just over $1 million dollars to $607,793 for a 68.96% cut. This office is required for the operation of the courts and maintenance of various legal documents. The other Row offices have been cut to unmanageable amounts and the reasoning that they will no long be separate offices does not hold water. The Row Officers were removed from existence but not the duties of each office. Records are still required and the fact that these offices are located in three separate buildings has not even been considered. The cost of the individual Row Officer will be eliminated but there remains a need for management and supervision. How do you maintain control and effectiveness when the cost of doing so is removed from the budget? The Register of Wills budget was cut 50%, Clerk of Courts cut 57%, Treasurer 57% and the Coroner cut by 29%. These cuts are a budget directors dream come true but they are a manager's nightmare. The Department of Probation is cut 35% and it appears that the outgoing commissioner's must think that no criminals will be placed on probation, no fines and fees will be collected and restitution for victims will be forgotten. The Magistrates are cut 53.23% and I would think part of their logic is that one magistrate office might be eliminated. Flawed thinking because if that happens, it wont occur till 2013 so they must still operate.
The Commissioners have given no thought to the fact that there are contracts in place but union and business. Example, of the 17 Magisterial offices, approximately 10 have leases with local municipalities and these local governments are planning their budgets with these leases in place. The remaining office have private sector leases and I doubt that these landlords are willing to cut the leases in half. Other than that, please consider that many Magisterial offices only have two clerical people so if they are cut in half, that leaves one person to run the office. If that person is sick or on vacation the office must close, there are no backup staff. The deeper you delve into this fantasy budget, the more childlike it becomes.
This is just a brief overview of the expense side of the ledger and I didn't even mention other big ticket items such as the prison, Moon Lake, etc.
The lack of thought is pretty evident when you consider that insurance and benefits remain about the same and this is after the county workforce is decimated. Is that logical?
On the income side, there has been nothing done in the form of creative management and the lack of effort is obvious in the numbers as they currently exist.
Steps that can be taken is the restructuring of the county debt, increasing probation services fees, the more active use of home arrest vs incarceration. This would result in the criminals (non violent) paying the cost of the ankle bracelets and supplying their own health care, food and clothing. The county spends millions each year on health care for prisoners. There can be an attempt to renegotiate county leases and discussions can be held with the unions to accept a temporary pay freeze or renegotiate the amount of the contracted pay increases. Probation fees for both adults and juvenile offenders must be increased. Some of these fees have remained unchanged for a number of years.
The thing I must caution on is that balancing the budget on the backs of the employees is never a good idea and long term, it causes a negative impact on county operations. The county must offer an early retirement incentive but they must pledge to not fill the vacated positions and the unions must agree to allow for transfers to save jobs. Employees must be allowed to transfer within the system to fill job needs and avoid layoffs in one department and hiring's in another. It is also possible to consider voluntary short term layoffs. Yes the county is self insured but the amount paid on layoff would equal the net pay of employees, not the gross. The costs of Social Security alone would be significant.
This is a time for creative thinking, not the simplistic approach that was used to gut the budget and give no thought to the consequences. For those incoming Council members who have taken the NO taxes approach of the Tea Party mentality, there is a reality that government is useful and serves a purpose. The problem in Luzerne county is that in recent years, little thought has been given to economic management and taxpayer responsibility. Services must be provided and in many cases are required but the delivery system can no longer be based on careless spending such as the palm reading time clocks and patronage with little thought to required funding.
Taxes are a requirement for services delivered and thoughtful frugal management must be the foundation of responsible government.

And former State Rep Kevin Blaum weighs in with his TL column

Commissioners continue to cause damage Kevin Blaum In the Arena

With only 45 days remaining in their tawdry tenure, the county commissioners brazenly made two appointments to the Luzerne County Community College’s Board of Trustees and named two more to the often pivotal county planning commission...On Monday your Luzerne County commissioners voted to create a bi-county authority to run the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. The Lackawanna County commissioners followed suit, and each body gets to make three appointments to the board with each appointee serving a four-year term...Worse, the commissioners might be leaving behind a political budget document set to explode early next year, forcing the new council to raise taxes only a few weeks in or preside over a government that makes huge cuts in the office of a new district attorney and the new judiciary in which it functions.

So let us give thanks to Maryanne Petrilla, Stephen Urban and Thomas Cooney for reminding everyone why voters marched to the polls en masse to abolish the offices they hold and to establish a new, reform government that assumes its responsibilities on Jan. 2.


Anonymous said...

Does Wil Toole know math?

He said "The Prothonotary's office was cut from just over $1 million dollars to $607,793 for a 68.96% cut."

If "just over" $1 million is $1.2 million, $600,000 is a 50% cut. Where's 68.96% coming from?

He's right, these are big cuts, but how's he adding this up?

Anonymous said...

Good observation. The budget I was able to obtain is the basis on which I made my observations. Yes, I made a critical error. I actually took for granted without much thought that the percentages shown would match the dollar differences. What I didn't consider is that the entire budget is a spoof so I should not have taken for granted the percentages would be correct.

I have checked the percentages and the following are correct.

Court Stenographers 37.4%
Prothonotary 39.2%
Register of Wills 49.3%
Clerk of Courts 36.3%
Treasurer 35 %
Coroner 22.2%
Probation 25.9%
Magistrates 34.8%

Anonymous said...

I did not support the Home Rule charter in 2010, and I still have strong reservations about portions of it, which is why I campaigned to try to maintain some public accountability inside of what is steadily becoming a privatized government. However, this is completely and wholly unacceptable.

It's Luzerne County Austerity. We can address our debt problem without slashing jobs and cutting services to nothing. I wish I had the chance to help select a County Manager, and try to ensure that whomever is selected will not follow the Austerity model, and will instead address both our debt problem as well as our growth problem, and build, rather than destroy.

Casey Evans

Anonymous said...

I havwe to wonder if Luzerne county is brain dead or people just don't give a shit. The information that Mr. Toole put forth and his explanation of the erred percentage was great information. Where are the readers? Where is the concern? Time and time agian, Luzerne county residents prove that they get what they deserve. I for one appreciate the effort that Mr. Toole and Mr. Blaum put into there informative remarks.

Anonymous said...

The great idot Steve Urban is calling the shots in the final days. I hope the FBI catches up with him soon!!!