Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The LuLac Edition #1858, December 14th, 2011

"Write On Wednesday" logo.



Our governmental expert in Luzerne County wrote a recent post regarding the County budget and the impact it would have on workers and taxpayers as the year ends. This is a critical, well thought out piece that originally appeared in Gort 42.
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 offices 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 umber 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 hirings 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.
Wil Toole served as Pittston City Clerk and Administrator in the 80s and 90s, worked in private industry, was most recently a candidate for Luzerne County Council and is a Coast Guard veteran.


At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yonk, After I penned this article, it was pointed out that the percentages I used were wrong. I posted the following explanation on Gort42:

The budget I was able to obtain is the basis on which I made my observations. The percentages I use in my post were taken from the budget and I did not verify them. 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 and represent the cuts made from the 2011 budget to the 2012 budget.

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%


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