WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri has requested a 2 percent tax increase in the proposed 2018 budget he unveiled Tuesday, citing rising costs and a recommendation to beef up staff.
If the hike is approved, the county tax bill on a $100,000 property would increase $11.95, from a total of $597.54 to $609.49.
Council has scheduled several work sessions before its Dec. 12 budget adoption.
Pedri told council his decision to seek an increase was not reached “lightly” or “flippantly” and referred to hours of fiscal review performed by the administration. He noted he chose to “play it straight” by rejecting an approach used by some government officials to include “fluff” and seek a higher increase that would make the 2 percent appear more favorable.
“It is my duty as the manager — something I take very seriously — to present to council a budget that addresses the needs to make our community better and to make our community stronger.”
According to Pedri and budget documents:
A 2 percent increase would generate an additional $2.1 million in the budget, which covers general operating expenses.
He cited several major 2018 spending increases: $1 million for the employee pension fund, $700,000 for health insurance and $600,000 for labor, primarily union-negotiated pay raises.
Pedri also wants to add $500,000 for new positions.
In total, the administration proposes 16 new posts, but seven would be fully funded by human resources revenue from the state or other sources.
Those seven, along with the salaries: two court administrative trial specialists, $27,000 each; four deputy sheriffs, $28,200 each; and a human services program director, $70,000.
The remaining proposed nine positions, with the salaries: communication coordinator, $51,000; chief operating officer, $96,000; prison kitchen supervisor, $35,262; election services associate, $28,000; three assistant district attorneys — two at $43,000 and one at $30,000; a public defender clerk stenographer, $25,200; and a public defender investigator, $27,200.
The budget would grow from $134.85 million to $141.13 million, or $6.3 million.
More than half of this increase is from $3.5 million in domestic relations spending — with matching revenue — that had been moved to a different account in 2015, making the funds less transparent.
In addition to the $2.1 million from the tax increase, the administration is projecting a $700,000 increase from the addition of property to the tax rolls due to new construction or the expiration of Keystone Opportunity Zones or other tax breaks.
The proposed budget also sets aside $600,000 in a reserve fund for emergencies and does not include one-time revenue streams that have created fiscal problems in the past.
Pedri said he and other administrators will present their rationale for the new positions at weekly budget sessions that start next week.
‘Hard to convince me’
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash said she does not need to hear a pitch and would vote to remove all new positions. She singled out two positions for criticism — the chief operating officer, which she described as a deputy manager, and the communication officer job she characterized as a “public relations person.”
“It would be hard to convince me,” she said.
Pedri said outside Tuesday’s meeting that many counties have communication officers to make the public aware of county services and issues. If the position is filled, this employee would not be his spokesperson, he said.
The county’s five-year financial recovery plan completed by Public Financial Management had recommended creation of a deputy manager position to focus on operations and performance management, Pedri said.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban challenged the health care increase, saying the county should implement measures that have become common in the private sector, such as higher deductibles and contributions toward coverage.
Pedri expects council changes and realizes his proposal is “not where we will end.”
Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley said he does not want to repeat last year’s budget process. After weeks of reviewing each expenditure and receipt, council members made broad changes but left it up to the administration to figure out how money would be moved around to hit those targets.
McGinley said council members should take more ownership of each budget category, even if the manager ultimately has authority to make budget transfers.
Property owners had a 4 percent county real estate tax increase this year. That package included $10.58 million for employee health care coverage and the payment of $8.1 million to shore up the pension fund.
Council last year also permanently ended a county-funded homestead tax break for owner-occupied residences that had been halted in 2015 because county officials did not identify $4.7 million to fund it annually. Homestead participants had saved $45 to $57 on county real estate taxes annually through the break that started in 2009.
In other business Tuesday:
• A council majority voted to hire Baron & Budd PC, of Dallas, Texas, and other associated firms to pursue litigation against opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors. Fellerman & Ciarimboli Law PC, Kingston, was hired to serve as the local liaison.
The county would pay 30 percent of any gross total recovery and nothing if the litigation is unsuccessful, Pedri said.