“You get what you pay for,” goes the proverb, and that might worry residents of Scranton, Pa. The city government has unilaterally slashed the pay of firefighters, police and public works employees to the minimum.
Lawyers for the unionized workers, whose pay was sharply cut -- by around two-thirds in some cases -- to the minimum of $7.25 an hour, filed Tuesday for a contempt hearing against Mayor Chris Doherty. A judge last week had ruled that the mayor could not cut the pay for almost 400 workers. The mayor did so anyway, arguing that there wasn't enough money in the city coffers to pay the owed payroll on time.
Judges do not indulge defendants who violate their rulings, said lawyer Thomas W. Jennings, who represents the unions fighting the mayor and the city -- the International Assn. of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge 2 and the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2305.
Nor was Jennings impressed by the officials’ tough talk. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I have never seen a defendant tougher than a judge,” Jennings said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.
If cited, Doherty would become the first mayor to be held in contempt in this type of case in the nation, Jennings said. The unions have also filed federal and state suits to recover lost funds.
Scranton, with its 76,000 residents in northeast Pennsylvania, is fighting a different kind of battle than some other cities, he said. Many cities are facing questions of financial solvency because of shrinking tax revenues and rising costs; Stockton, Calif., for example, recently became the largest municipality to file for bankruptcy protection. But, Jennings said, Scranton's battle is more of a political one between the mayor and the council.
“This has nothing to do with money,” Jennings said. “They’re not broke. What they have is a lack of political will. The mayor and the City Council have a differing opinion on funding. We don’t have a horse in that race. We’re not Stockton. We’re just being squeezed.”
Scranton officials were not immediately available for comment, but in recent weeks have been visibly fighting over the city’s finances and the minimum wage issue.
“If I had the money, I'd pay” employees, Doherty told reporters last week. “Again, it's the council's budget” that has not provided enough funding to pay all of the city's bills, he insisted, according to media reports.
The next payroll of about $1 million is scheduled for July 20, and it was unclear if the city had enough money to write the checks. If the city again goes the minimum wage route, the payroll cost drops to about $300,000, but city officials have said they will pay the owed wages when – and if – the current problems are resolved.
As of Monday, the city had $133,000 in cash, but owed $3.4 million in various bills including health insurance, city Business Administrator Ryan McGowan told the Times-Tribune. Last week, the city treasury shrank to $5,000 on Thursday and $83,000 on Friday.
Such fluctuations are not unusual in the world of municipal finance since revenues flow like a faucet, sometimes a trickle and sometimes a torrent.