Luzerrne County Council member Rick Morelli.
Luzerne Ciunty Council member Steve Urban.
That restless political cowboy Steve Urban Senior is looking again to try for another political office. My sources tell me it’s for the job he’s always wanted U.S. Congress. Urban has had his eye on that seat for a long time since he moved back to the area. Urban’s friends (and yes he does have a few) under the Dome are circulating petitions for his run in the new 17th Congressional district. Incumbent Tim Holden and Moosic attorney Matt Cartwright are also in the race.
THE BISHOP OBJECTS
So the Archbishop of Archbald weighed in on the latest health care mandate and he’s not happy. Bishop Joseph Bambera is speaking out against about a new requirement that all employers, even those religion-affiliated, provide health insurance coverage that includes free birth control. In a letter emailed to The Scranton Times on Friday, the bishop of the Diocese of Scranton called the move a violation of the First Amendment, "denying to Catholics our nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty."
Unless the legislation is overturned, he said Catholics will be required to either break conscience or break the law, referring to the penalties for dropping health care coverage.
Bishop Bambera's letter directed particular disdain at the requirement that the health insurance plan must provide access to the morning-after pill, which the letter calls an "abortion-inducing drug”. Citizen's Voice.
Okay, a few things here. The Bishop is once again playing fast and loose with words like liberty. No one is forcing anyone to take the morning after pill. No one is forcing anyone to take contraceptives. A sensible health care mandate though is making them available and at no co pay. For the leader of any church to be against contraception and attack the government for offering it is offensive and totally out of line.
The Bishop has to know that at least 90% of practicing Catholics use birth control. If they didn’t, he wouldn’t need to close so many damn schools!!! The Bishop has to realize that in order for Catholics to pay the freight on his Bishop’s Annual Appeal, these families have to use birth control. If there are some Catholics crazy enough out there not to use it, fine. Let them have it at…..but don’t deny the choice to those people. The key word here is choice. The Bishop’s statement makes it sound like cohersion. It’s not!!!!!!!
Deny the availability of contraceptives. Do it your Excellency. And we’ll get more little babies born because the church said no to contraception. Those babies would then get their heads bashed in with cinder blocks and left for dead by parents who don’t value the word “life” that you so easily bandy about. We’ll have more unwed teenage mothers popping out babies and then handing them off to their baby boom, parents to raise. There will be good Catholics using your blessed rhythm method having late in life babies born with disabilities. Because they did not use contraception, parents in their late 40s will now have to care for a handicapped child well into their senior years. This statement by the Bishop only proves one thing, the old white men who still run the church, yes even ours locally still want to tell a woman what to do with their body in all manners. Don’t have abortions, don’t use birth control, and by God if you do get knocked up, even if you aren’t prepared to take care of a human life, bring it on. Somehow it seems to me, the church is worried about the wrong set of “lives” here. And the beat goes on.
DA PENS LETTER
In response to what is going on with the County Budget, new District Attorney Stafanie Salavantis has written an open letter to the public. Here are her thoughts:
LETTER TO THE EDITOR Stefanie J. Salavantis
To the Residents, voters and taxpayers of Luzerne County:
This county is facing many detrimental issues, two of which are the county’s budget and crime rate. When I took over as district attorney in the beginning of January, the former commissioners cut the funding for the District Attorney’s Office by $623,000. As a result, other than my secretary, who took the place of the prior secretary, and my administrators, who were already in the office, I did not hire a single additional individual. Despite positions vacated by five attorneys who had left to become judges or moved on to pursue other endeavors, I resisted replacing open positions for several reasons.
As an outsider entering as the district attorney, I did not want to have personal ties to any employees. I wanted to assess for myself if the office had “fat to be trimmed,” so to speak. If cuts were possible, they would be implemented, but not unless they could be made responsibly. I vowed in my campaign to fight against corruption and the old-school politics that led to the scandal which engulfed our county. Part of that fight involved ensuring that the District Attorney’s Office was not understaffed, undereducated or undertrained. Leaving the office in such a state would lead to the inability to follow the Constitutional, prosecutorial and ethical obligations which the courts, the public and I so adamantly demand of the District Attorney’s Office.
The laws passed by the General Assembly provide that the district attorney, elected by the people, shall decide the minimum staff required to ethically perform the duties of the office. We are not seeking plush and surplus staffing, but merely the ability to do the job as required by our legal and ethical mandates. We seek sufficient funds to prevent cases and investigations from falling through the cracks as crime victims, police prosecutors and residents of this county expect. We must be able to ensure dangerous people are not returned to our neighborhoods when they should be in prison.
My administration and I have spent endless hours examining and dissecting the operation of the office and the budgetary issues. In investigating the prior years, we found that for the 2010 fiscal year, the commissioners cut the office’s budget by $300,000. They asked the District Attorney’s Office to tighten its belt. The office restricted the use of experts and overtime and did not make hires, which were needed, unless absolutely necessary.
For the 2011 fiscal year, the commissioners cut the office budget another $400,000. The public was told all the excesses had been trimmed and once again the District Attorney’s Office was asked to “tighten its belt.” It did. The office moved money from line items where it was not immediately needed, essentially borrowing from Peter to pay Paul whenever it could be legally done. Grants were sought to make necessary hires needed to maintain the workload. Assistant District Attorneys worked extra overtime without pay to ensure cases were prepared, briefs were filed and trials were ready.
At the advent of the 2012 fiscal year, prior to the seating of the new County Council, commissioners cut the budget of the District Attorney’s Office another $623,000. I was told that cuts were made “across the board” and it would be up to the new council to fix it. I immediately set to work on the logistics of running this office on a tight budget. Seeing the impossible workload the staff is trying to handle quickly makes one realize that more attorneys are needed to fill the positions vacated by newly elected Judge Vough, Judge Hughes, First Assistant Tokach, Deputy DA Pedri and ADA Dudick, who together had a total of nearly 70 years prosecutorial experience. I was asked to delay hiring as the new council was making a complete review of all departments’ budgets, and I did so.
While I felt this type of cut demonstrated a recklessness and indifference to the operation of this office, I was hopeful that the new council would take office, thoroughly investigate which cuts each department could endure and pass a reasonable budget. With a new court, new government and myself as the new district attorney, it was not my desire to begin this new era in Luzerne County in an adversarial fashion. I began with the same faith in the new council that the voters demonstrated in moving away from the three-commissioner system. Nonetheless, I realize we now have a full complement of judges who will demand that our office work overtime to alleviate the backlog of cases in our system, which cannot be done with our current staff.
The budget proposed to us on Friday completely disregards the essential needs of this office. It actually increased the cuts from $623,000 to $680,211. A total three-year cut of nearly $1.4 million, or almost 25 percent of our budget. I met with the interim manager, attended budget meetings, spoke at the January 17, 2012 managers’ meeting, and discussed our position with Manager Lawton at his meeting with the administrators on January 25, 2012. All of my pleas appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Adding insult to the injury of the debilitating cut in budget, at our January 25, 2012 meeting, the new manager advised the crowd that the District Attorney’s Office could decide to “not prosecute cases.” Imagine a scenario where your home was burglarized, a heroin dealer was apprehended or your wallet was stolen at gunpoint at the local mini mart. The police investigate, apprehend the perpetrator and prove a case at the magistrate, resulting in the District Attorney’s Office utilizing a “luxury not to prosecute” and closing the file, sending the perpetrator back to your neighborhood. This statement alone shows a gross misunderstanding of the operation of the District Attorney’s Office. Further, it is contrary to state law for county officials to require me to prosecute fewer cases or ignore crime to save money.
It has been purported to the media that this cut in our budget will result in a loss of six employees. This statement is either misguided or disingenuous. It ignores the fact that, as I stated above, we currently have five fewer assistant DAs than we did 30 days ago. They were some of our most experienced attorneys, capable of handling extremely large caseloads. The actual total loss, therefore, is currently proposed to be 11. This number also ignores the fact that cuts would likely come from the least senior, lowest-paid employees, some of whom, our hardest workers, are earning under $20,000 salaries. Thus, 11 layoffs (or 20 percent of our staff) would not come close to making up the difference.
Since taking over, I have worked on every measure to save taxpayer dollars. I have further restricted overtime and directed my administrators to pick up overtime hours without pay to make up some of the backlog. I am implementing policies which will garner the smallest of savings such as directing that notices be faxed instead of mailed when the law permits to save postage and directing that documents provided to defendants be printed on two sides of pages or on a CD when possible. I have even requested that our employees take rolling layoffs one day per month. Unfortunately, in an understaffed office, such layoffs, while better than a complete loss, would still exacerbate our problems.
In very limited circumstances, our office can generate revenue. One possibility is to implement fines in addition to court costs in every criminal case. Fines are currently an option in every criminal grading under the law, but not utilized in many cases. People who commit crimes should be required to defray the cost of their actions currently borne by taxpayers. However, these actions would never make up a $680,000 difference in an already severely strapped and understaffed office, and could not be enacted in the 25 or so days I have been the district attorney.
At the time of Friday’s budget announcement, only one of 11 council members had spent any appreciable time learning any of the operation of my office. I would like to thank Councilman Tim McGinley for taking time to understand the procedures and volume of work performed each day.
It is my sincere hope that council will reconsider the severe cuts to the District Attorney’s Office. As I said, I am willing to work in every way possible to see this through to an amicable conclusion. I have worked every day since my election, before even being seated, to make this office and this county better. This office cannot continue in its current state, and this budget honestly prevents my office from executing its functions as required by law.
I believe our council members are trying. Just as a marathon cannot be won in the first hundred yards, the adversity left to council cannot be fixed in the time they have had to learn the county’s operation and amend the budget. It simply is not possible to fully understand the operation of every office in the past 25 days and reasonably implement the appropriate cuts to close the vast debt immediately. Learning the intricacies of one office while working in it full-time and trained in the law was a formidable enough task. Tying our hands with the purse strings designed to administer justice simply cannot be the answer and leaves only one unpleasant and unwanted choice.
I have attempted to and will continue to work and cooperate in every way possible to act in a diligent, responsible manner with the new council and for the citizens of this county so long as council will do the same. Nonetheless, I will not neglect the citizens of this county. My first and foremost responsibility is to the safety of our citizens, the prosecution of criminals and the administration of justice.
Stefanie J. Salavantis,
Luzerne County District
Council member Rick Morelli sent a letter along the other night regarding the budget and the new County Council. Here’s what he had to say:
Now that the new county government is officially in place, those of us on County Council are currently facing our first major challenge in amending the 2012 budget that was put forth by the previous county commissioners. The positive news is that the majority of council, including myself, opposes any tax increase this year. The unfortunate part of this latest budget option is that it seems to have a majority of support for cutting the county workforce by approximately 106 people. I feel that layoffs of this magnitude will be detrimental to the delivery of necessary and expected county services and puts us on a direct collision course for costly litigation with our own court system. I cannot and will not support this option as a responsible choice for the residents of Luzerne County.
I do, however, believe that there are better alternative budget options that we can choose from which would still allow efficient government, no tax increase this year, and which would give the proper time to implement more permanent and realistic cost cutting measures for budgets ahead.
Below are a number of alternative options that I believe should be implemented in this year’s budget, and I am requesting that the following options be offered for council's consideration and vote for the 2012 budget. Some of these are one time streams of revenue while others are long term. These options will also allow us to balance this budget with no tax increase, and allow the new manager (Robert Lawton) the time and means to properly transition our government.
I suggest the following:
1. Using $1.4 million in unspent bond proceeds borrowed in 2008 as a revenue source to pay down county debt: Revenue equates to approximately $1.4 million
2. Utilize monetization (selling liens on 2011 delinquent taxes for an upfront payment): Revenue equates to approximately $1.5 million
3. Eliminate health benefits for part-time non-union attorneys. There are about 40 part-time non-union attorneys on the payroll, and they are all eligible for benefits, including family coverage. Savings of approximately $400,000
4. Increase the health premium co-pay for non-union employees from 10 percent to 20 percent. Savings of $220,559
5. Eliminate 10 days of management wages: One (1) day of management wages (i.e. non bargaining units) equates to $39,070; hence, 10 days equates to $390,700 in annual savings.
6. As stated in the PFM five-year financial plan, allocate $100,000 from the liquid fuel fund.
7 . Staff layoffs of approximately 60 people. Equates to approximately $3 million.
I understand that some of these options may not be popular with everyone but tough times require tough decisions! I believe we can get through the 2012 budget without being reckless and abandoning the county’s services. The budget options that I propose are not just to protect jobs but to protect the county services and to give our new form of government the time to properly implement long term effective solutions.
It is important to note that because of time constraints in approving this budget by February 15, 2012, we do not have adequate time to negotiate saving options with the unions. However, I do believe that we can work with the unions in the upcoming year to find ways for future savings.
Although the council members have different opinions as to which approach is best, I can assure the public that all 11 council members, along with the interim manager Tom Pribula and his staff, are trying their best to do what they feel is right for the future of Luzerne County.
I believe that the future of Luzerne County will be brighter and that this new form of county government will deliver more efficient county services while maximizing the taxpayer’s dollar. In this first step of implementing Home Rule governing it is crucial that we, the citizens AND the Council, consider and choose the options that pave a path to success and avoid the reckless and irresponsible pitfalls of our previous government.
Luzerne County Councilman