Battling over the budget increase in Wilkes-Barre

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WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — $4.5 million. That’s the amount of revenue the city of Wilkes-Barre lost due to the pandemic. Now there’s a battle over the budget in City Hall, and at least 30 city jobs are at stake.

Faced with an enormous deficit, Mayor George Brown proposed increasing sewer and recycling fees. But not everyone is on board.

Raising fees or slashing jobs and services. Those are the choices Mayor George Brown says the city of Wilkes-Barre faces, after losing a projected four to five million dollars due in part to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t want to do any increases but the shortfall created by this pandemic is leaving me in a position where I have to do something,” Brown said.

Thursday, Brown announced the proposed budget for 2021. He included an increase of sewer and recycling fees from $50 to $100 a year.

The proposal was met with opposition, even from inside City Hall. Councilwoman Beth Gilbert-McBride responded to the public outcry on social media, saying she will not vote to approve the fee increase.

“It’s just because they can’t afford it, you know. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and I don’t know how we could justify raising any fees right now,” Gilbert-McBride said.

Brown justifies it as the fairest way to make up lost revenue. He says he did not want to impose a major tax hike. It’s either raise the fees or layoff at least 30 city employees.

“They’re going to have to look at what are we going to cut back as far as services for the people, and honestly I don’t see any services that we can cut back,” Brown said.

Gilbert-McBride disagrees.

“I think that we need to look individually at positions in City Hall and within the Department of Public Works as well and really evaluate each and every position and if someone’s not doing their job correctly, maybe it’s time for that person to go,” Gilbert-McBride said.

One thing they both agree on: union contracts are weighing the city down. They’re locked in to a three to four percent pay raise for union workers.

“If they agreed to a salary freeze we wouldn’t have to lay off so many people. If they cared about the city maybe that’s something they should think about,” Gilbert-McBride said.

Brown says it’s now up to council. Brown stressed he does not want to cut services to residents. That could include plowing streets in the winter, patching roads, and collecting trash to start.

If approved, the fee increase would go into effect in January. Council will have its first reading of the budget the first week in November.

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