Tamaqua's police department will be down by one officer next year after borough officials voted to layoff one full-time person in order to help cover a $229,000 budget deficit in the general fund for 2012.
Council President Micah Gursky said that he and fellow council members Brian Connely and David Mace had several meetings to work on the budget shortfall.
"We had two meetings with the police union," said Gursky. "They're a huge part of the general fund and we asked them for some help to reduce that budget.
"We didn't ask them to close the entire gap, but help us out with a percentage that reflects their percentage of the fund, about $82,000."
Gursky said that the police unanimously voted not to reopen the contract, but did make several suggestions to try to reach the $82,000, including raising the meter and parking fines, suspending the random drug testing of police officers for 2012, and eliminating the DARE program. They also voluntarily offered to eliminate the officer-in-charge pay and shift differential that officers earn, two holidays, and to reduce their uniform budget from $600 to $500 per officer. The police also recommended getting rid of car 178, a Dodge Intrepid.
"The words they used to describe that car can't be repeated at a public meeting," said Gursky. Connely called the car a "money pit."
However, it was not enough.
"The measures they came up with do not close that gap," Gursky said, adding that the voluntary reductions would also come off the table if the borough were to consider a mandatory layoff.
Gursky thanked the police for coming to the table and indicated that the borough has so far been unsuccessful in setting a similar meeting with the United Auto Workers union, which is responsible for the nonuniformed borough workers.
Gursky said that the committee had determined that by including several of the suggestions from the police and the layoff of one full-time officer, the borough could move toward closing the deficit.
"We started this discussion by laying off two officers and this got us to only one," he said. The full-time police position costs the borough approximately $93,425; however, Gursky said that the unemployment that will be needed to be paid out would also need to be considered against that number.
Council voted to adopt changes to the draft budget that included raising meter fines from $5 to $10 and parking fines from $15 to $25, suspending the random drug testing for 2012, eliminating the DARE program for 2012, and reducing the full-time police force by one officer. Council also said it will not fill one of the two vacant street department positions.
"That gets us closer to that $229,000 number," said Gursky.
The cost associated with the street department position is approximately $73,000, including wages and benefits. One other program that got the ax is the tax exoneration program, which could save the borough about $8,500 a year.
The layoff did not sit well with Police Chief David Mattson and Mayor Christian Morrison. Mattson suggested that one way to help cut costs would be to make part-time officer pay more attractive on holidays.
"Some officers are making $1,000 on the holidays," said Mattson. "They are working overtime and holiday pay. If the borough would consider raising the part-time pay, I could get a part-time officer to work for $200-$300 a day instead."
Mattson suggested raising the part-time rate to $20 per hour for holidays. Council added that to the budget modification.
Mattson agreed with the suspension of the drug testing.
"In three years, we haven't had a hit," he said. "I can still send anyone that I have cause to suspect."
Citizen Ray Bonetsky argued against the suspension, saying that it brought the department more respect. Mattson cited the overtime costs associated with the testing as another hindrance for the department.
Mattson also disagreed with selling the additional police car.
"We need another car immediately," he said, saying that officers will be forced to use their own vehicles without it.
Morrison questioned the need to fill the second street department position.
"By my numbers, you're still about $55,000 short," he said.
Mattson and Morrison both requested another look at the police budget, citing changes to scheduling that had resulted in savings in the past year. Mattson pointed out that as things stand now, the police department will finish the year under budget.
"We've implemented the changes that you guys suggested and it's working," he said. "We will continue to make those changes. The guys won't like it, but if it's saving someone's job, they'll go along with it."
Morrison also indicated that the DARE program could still exist if it is run by volunteers or if the community continues to support it; however, the borough will no longer pay for the officers to participate in the program.
Following the vote to change the draft budget, council also made a motion to request that the police union consider allowing the layoff based on a productivity measure, rather than seniority.
Mattson and Morrison, as well as several residents, said that some of the more junior officers in the department are among the most productive and it would be a shame to lose one of them. Gursky agreed, saying that "it's not unreasonable for us to ask for the most bang for our buck." The layoff will be based on seniority, unless the union agrees to the productivity measure.
After the meeting, Gursky said that the borough is not considering a tax increase to cover the gap because the borough needs to take a serious look and reign in spending.
"We've been willing to raise taxes, when we've had a large expenditure like the Wabash," he said, citing the most recent tax hike two years ago. "If we don't get some structural changes, we're never going to be able to balance the budget."
The current millage is 17.25, with 0.5 mills being dedicated to the building and equipment fund and 16.75 mills dedicated to the general fund. Each mill generates approximately $72,000.