*Note: this story is a class assignment, and is was staged in class for the purpose of the professor knowing the accuracy of the numbers and quotes in the story.
By Kimberly Wethal
Mayor Gustavus Petykiewicz unveiled the proposed budget for the City of Kittatinny on Tuesday “with a heavy heart.”
His proposed 2016 budget involves cuts to programs such as the police department and involves a tax increase for residents to help cover the loss of $100,000,000 in property value. The loss can be attributed to Susquehanna Steel Corporation, as the company shut down one of their two blast furnace units earlier in the year, taking 24 percent of the industrial property’s tax revenue and 600 local jobs with it.
Petykiewicz said the actions resulting from the budget cuts are “not ones I take lightly.”
“The situation at Susquehanna Steel Corporation is forcing us to make some very difficult choices,” Petykiewicz said. “Today I have set forth a budget that would be balanced, but would involve items that would be painful or controversial.”
That controversy includes the layoff of two police officers, the elimination of the police’s morning shift running from 4 a.m. to noon and garbage services for residents and the purchases of new equipment.
Pennsylvania state law requires the budget for the upcoming year to be signed and in place by Dec. 1, leaving the mayor and the city council less than two months to come up with a finalized version of the budget.
The city’s proposed tax budget for 2016 totals $3,189,740, down $114,600 from the year prior. This leaves the city with a xxx percent cut in tax levies, even with a proposed tax increase of .3 mills, a number Petykiewicz said is “negotiable.”
The current mill rate for the City is at 4 mills. If the proposed tax increase remained the same and is signed into law, a homeowner with a property value of $100,000 would see their property tax rise by $30.
New equipment purchases are also in store for the city, including a new police cruiser, a new riding lawn mower, a combination dump truck/snow plow for the streets department and a drivable weed removal vehicle for the beach at White Deer Lake.
The weed removal vehicle is slated to cost the city $100,000, Petykiewicz said.
With all of the cuts, Petykiewicz is willing to take one himself.
In the budget, he’s frozen his salary, along with the salaries of the other non-unionized department heads, and would take a 10 percent cut in pay if other city officials agree to do the same.
“I do need to step forward,” Petykiewicz said. “I will make that offer.”
By the numbers
Kittatinny had property value totaling $826,100,000 in 2015.
For 2016, however, that number has dropped to $741,800,000, due partially in part to Susquehanna’s lost blast furnace and a slight decrease in residential property, about $1.2 million’s worth.
Petykiewicz’s version of the budget would raise the tax levy to 4.3 mills, bringing in $3,189,740. That still leaves the city with $114,660 less to work with, a 3.5 percent decrease.
The total collection number is also just an estimate; with former Susquehanna employees still potentially out of work, Petykiewicz hopes to be able to collect all of the $3.1 million tax levy.
“I would encourage people to help us through this difficult time and to be good citizens, because taxes are part of citizenship,” he said. “Taxes are a price of citizenship. Dig deep, tighten your belts; I think we’re all going to have to do that.”
Residential property value decreased by 0.6 percent for the upcoming fiscal year, seeing as the City condemned 11 properties lining the east bank of Loyalsock Creek earlier in 2015. Other homes in the City did not have their property reassessed.
Existing commercial properties also did not see a change in their worth, but overall property value went up 9.7 percent to $232,300,000, thanks to the completion of Tohickon Creek Plaza, which houses Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Radio Shack and the Acme supermarket.
Additional income to the city is planned in the budget, as Petykiewicz expects to see $15,436 more in higher parking fees (rising from a dime to a quarter an hour for parking meters and from $65 to $75 for the two city parking lots) and a rise in parking tickets, along with more revenue from a higher number of police citations.
With all income combined, the budget would give the city $3,315,946 to work with, a decrease of $99,044 from last year’s $3,414,990 budget.
‘Taking danger, and compounding it’
Bjarne Westhoff, president of the Pennsylvania Police Association Local 34, said cutting the police force’s personnel and hours is the Petykiewicz’s way to take a jab at Police Chief Roman Hruska.
“The mayor and the police chief don’t get along,” Westhoff said. “You all know that; you all see the way they snarl at each other … personally, I think this is a really bad way to solve a personal dispute.”
Two police officers are being laid off, and pending city council approval, the budget would cut the 4 a.m. to noon morning shift for the department as well, leaving emergencies to be handled by Schuylkill County sheriff deputies.
The contract with the county would cost the city $35,332 for the 2016 fiscal year.
These proposals don’t make Kittatinny Police Chief Roman Hruska happy.
“I cannot stand idly by and watch a city of this size be deprived of their police protection for a third of each day,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible idea, and I have told the mayor as much.”
Hruska says that while the 8-hour span is the quietest shift of the day, that doesn’t mean nothing happens.
“You’re not likely to have a violent gang incident at 7 in the morning, but I’ll tell you what you could have at 7 in the morning,” he said. “You could have a domestic violence incident. For a police officer, there is nothing more dangerous than a domestic violence incident.
“You get a call that a man is holding his wife at knifepoint in an apartment, and you enter that hallway with your gun drawn because you know her life or your life could be in danger.”
Petykiewicz stated during the press conference that the cuts to the police department were purely due to the city’s high cost of personnel expenses.
“I did it simply because as you know, with a city government, our overwhelming cost is personnel, payroll and benefits,” Petykiewicz said. “By reducing the force by two officers, we’ll save a lot of money. This is a major item for cost-savings.”
In order to make these changes, contracts will be have to be renegotiated by the Pennsylvania Police Association. The contracts were originally scheduled to expire in June of 2017.
It would break Westhoff’s heart to see the two police officers go.
“I feel awful, on a couple of fronts,” he said. “First of all, they’re excellent officers; I consider them my friends and my comrades and my colleagues. We work together very well … if they’re career police, they’ll go somewhere else and leave town. On another front, I think their absence would be a terrible loss for the city because it would put our citizens in jeopardy.”
New Equipment Purchases
While the police department might be losing two officers in the next budget, they might be gaining new equipment.
A new police cruiser is set to replace the decade-old Ford Fairlane, which has around 220,000 miles on it and is fitted with outdated technology.
Technology is the big cost of the vehicle – fitting it with the electronics costs $20,000 alone.
Squad cars are usually replaced when they reach the age of 5 years or climb past 175,000 miles, Petykiewicz said.
“The problem with that cruiser is that it is no longer reliable,” he said. “Which is to say it could be en route to an emergency and conk out on the street … we cannot let that happen. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to end up on the TV news up in Scranton.”
In the budget, there’s also money set aside for a new $12,000 industrial-grade riding lawn mower. The city usually depreciates for 15 years before being replaced. The current one is going on 20.
“Some people have said to me, ‘why don’t we just let the lawns grow up and be like natural prairie?’” Petykiewicz said. “The problem is, even though we are having trouble in Kittatinny, we simply can’t let things go to pot. We have to maintain our appearances.”
The last piece of equipment is the weed removal vehicle for White Deer Lake’s beachfront, a cost of $100,000. Petykiewicz did not comment on the weed removal vehicle during the press conference.
Changes in Garbage Services
For City of Kittatinny residents, garbage disposal services have only been visible to them for the few minutes the trucks are stopped outside their house.
Now, they’ll see it on their water bills as well.
Garbage services will add an additional $30 to their monthly bill, should residents choose to keep it.
The proposed budget cuts garbage disposal from the tax levy, forcing residents to pay for it themselves if they are interested in keeping the service.
The service will remain to be contracted through Tioga Sanitation Company for residential customers. The city is currently negotiating with Tioga to work through the fine details of the contract.
Commercial and industrial properties are not impacted by the removal of trash pick-up from the tax levy because businesses have already been handling their own disposal services.
“The services are being paid for specifically by the people who use them,” Petykiewicz said. “I know this will not be an easy item. There is some pain to be spread around here, and I think this spreads it around uniformly.