Opinions need not be feared nor suppressed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No more Skrep, no more Petrilla

“If you’re not changing, you’ve got problems.”

That was said to me earlier this morning by a high-ranking city official. We were discussing the crippling effects health insurance rates, entitlements for all retirees and their families, and the overall economic morass has on municipalities large, small and otherwise. Another quote I could attribute to him is, “It’s crippling many municipalities.”

Where I hail from, the private sector, the fixes are usually simple. Fixed costs are fixed costs, but controllable costs are easy to control by simply reducing the size of the work force--by cutting payroll. Lose employees.

But for a municipality such as this one, the garbage still to be picked up on time, the fires still need to be fought and the streets still need to be patrolled. Hence, until we finally go full-blown depression in this country, this city can ill-afford to shrink it’s work force any further. As it stands now, we’ve got less than 300 city employees servicing the needs of some 42,000 people.

During these most dire of economic times, as officials from both sectors of the economy struggle to balance their books, or eke out a meager profit, the lead quote kind of says it all, “If you’re not changing, you’ve got problems.”

And after wincing my way through the Times Leader this morning, I do need to ask one question, with our county government facing so many vexing financial problems, why aren’t they changing?”

Luzerne County is borrowing $18.2M
Luzerne County government will receive $18.2 million in borrowed funds this week, even though the county was unable to secure bond insurance, county Budget/Finance Chief Tom Pribula said Monday.

Pribula said the county found investors who were willing to buy the bonds without insurance. County officials had thought that the interest rate without insurance would be high, but Pribula said it is comparable to past issues.

The county will repay the debt at a 7.5 percent interest rate through 2019 and a 7.75 percent interest rate through the remaining years until 2027.

“We’ve paid a little higher on some of the previous bond issues that were insured – all the way up to 8 percent,” Pribula said.

The county also will save hundreds of thousands of dollars by not paying for bond insurance, he said.

The borrowed funds had been factored into the 2009 budget, in large part to cover rising employee pension fund subsidies. The county would have run out of money without the bond infusion.

Financial Security Assurance Inc., the primary insurer of government bonds, had expressed concerns about insuring the deal. Specifically, FSA wanted a guarantee in writing that the county won’t continue borrowing and refinancing to cover deficit spending.

Commissioners said they plan to stop living on borrowed funds, but they can’t follow through until they pass the proposed 2010 budget on Nov. 25.

Okay, nothing new going on there--more deficit-spending--except for the troubling fact that we are now carrying uninsured debts. And I found it interesting, almost amusing, how county officials think they managed to spin bad news into it being a sort of, a kind of good thing.

Hey, we’ve got uninsured debts. Isn’t this great!?!

Anyway, after reading that disturbing tripe, I segued into this bit of malarkey, this ingenious triangulating, this purposeful end run around the only checks and balances we will have after the calendar flips to a new year.

Rule irks pay board members
Former Luzerne County controller Steve Flood and Commissioner Stephen A. Urban used to regularly block job creations and pay increases on the Salary Board, and it’s expected that Urban and Walter Griffith will do the same when Griffith becomes controller in January.

But county officials have changed the rules in recent months by allowing department heads to cast a fifth vote.

County row officers and the president judge always had a fifth vote on the Salary Board for matters concerning their individual offices, but the county started allowing non-elected department heads to vote on positions in their departments – a practice forbidden in the past.

The three commissioners and county controller always sit on the powerful board, which eliminates positions and sets salaries.

Urban said he does not believe department heads have legal authority to vote.

“Walter will be in a better position to challenge it. He will be able to hire a solicitor who will be able to challenge these types of issues,” Urban said.

Griffith said he won’t agree to allow department heads to cast votes unless he is convinced the law requires it. He is still researching who he will appoint to the solicitor post.

My friend Gort has already posted about this nonsense. And as a result, Wil Toole and Walter Griffith have already gone toe-to-toe in the reader’s comments about possible interpretations of the county code, the law as it pertains to this end run.

But in all honesty, the correct, the proper or the possible interpretations of the language of the county code matters to me not. Not in the least. No, here’s what’s beyond disturbing about this. And for the purposes of this textual exercise, we’ll use facts.

Our county government has been deficit-spending for years on end…another year, another huge bond to cover payroll until the next fiscal year. Our county government is carrying so many outstanding debts, the debt service is going to continue to gobble up large chunks of the operating budget from this day forward.

Yet, with that said, our majority commissioners are pulling this end run around the remaining, the more fiscally prudent members of the salary board as a way of negating any checks and balances we may have gained when last we voted. This move was made to maintain the status quo, the status quo we can ill-afford. No, the status quo we obviously cannot afford any longer.

With the salary board voting 2-2, with no mandatory quorum, what might come about in 2010? Raises? No. Bonuses? Nope. New hires? Not. And I’m just scratching the surface by typing that much.

In other words, the long overdue austerity measures will not come about. When what any fiscally savvy manager would be doing is trimming the payroll during these flat lined economic times, not in Luzerne County. No, apparently our commissioners plan to stop the flood of red ink by…by…by…sticking with things as they have been done in the past. You know, the old way. The expensive way. The red ink way.

Just when we thought we had a level playing field as far as the salary board is concerned, our majority commissioners decided to change the rules in the middle of the game. And for those of you clamoring for transparency in government, I think you just got it. Because from where I’m sitting and typing, this move seems pretty transparent to me.

So, with the economy going through the funk of a lifetime, with costs escalating, with an electric rate cap set to expire, and with government employee pensions about to snuff the financial life out of municipalities far and wide, I ask of our two majority commissioners, what’s changed? What are they going to do differently in the face of a growing (literally) and increasingly troublesome financial mess they’ve gotten themselves, and us, into?

In these most uncertain of economic times, if you’re not changing, you’ve got problems. And if our big two honchos steadfastly refuse to change, then it’s become patently obvious that we need to make a change when next they ask for our vote.

Retention? Vote no to Skrepenak and Petrilla. No more Skrep, no more Petrilla. No more.

If hope and change is really what you want, send these two obstructionists packing the very first chance you get. Because in Luzerne County, hope and change will never arrive in earnest while these two continue to stonewall against progress.

Enough already.


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