Tax, Spend, and Theft Politics Come to Mount Pocono.
After last night's Council Meeting, I don't know where to begin. I'll start with the facts.
-The 2020 Budget will be advertised and open for public inspection before it is voted on at the December 23rd Council meeting. The budget includes an around 8% tax increase. More on that later.
-Employees will not receive a raise next year due to budget constraints.
-Employees accrual of vacation days was tapered back so that they receive fewer vacation days in their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years.
-Employees that opt out of the Health Insurance offered by the Borough (because they or their spouse have insurance) are NO longer entitled to be paid 50% of what the premium would have cost the Borough.
-In 2021 Council will look to make employees pay the premiums for their dependents. Currently, the Borough covers 100% of the premium costs.
-Council voted 4-3 to advertise an ordinance that would more than double the Mayor and Councilmember's annual pay. (from 900 to 1850 p/y). The increase would be effective for incoming or reelected Councilmembers only. Click here to read the ordinance.
-Council had a motion on the floor to grant the Mayor and Councilmembers access to the same insurance it offers to Borough Employees (with 0% contribution to the premium). There was no discussion as to the cost of this provision because they didn't have or didn't want to reveal the information. The motion was rescinded so that Council could discuss it further. Click here to read the ordinance.
-The employee policy revisions and the ordinances to benefit the Mayor and Councilmembers listed above were not on the advertised agenda. Click here to read the agenda.
-My resignation letter was on the agenda. Prior to Council accepting my resignation by vote, President Williams brought up the Mayor's request of the solicitor. The Mayor felt the Borough Code dictated that my resignation be effective immediately and not on the date, January 31st, defined in my letter. The solicitor disagreed.
First, the Tax Increase - Every resident and business in the Borough is going to see a change in their taxes based on two factors; their re-assessed property value and the new millage rates. By law, the Borough cannot take in more real estate tax revenue in 2020 than it did in 2019 due to the countywide re-assessment. However, if the Borough's expenses increased between the two years, they can raise taxes to cover their expenses but by no more than 10%. To maintain the same level of income from 2019 to 2020 and to adjust for the new way that property values are assessed, the Borough would need to set the new millage rate at 3.83. The current draft budget that will be voted on at the December 23rd meeting sets the millage at 4.15. That is an 8% increase over 2019.
The Borough has struggled to pay its bills for decades. Police costs rise almost every year and eat nearly half of the Borough's entire budget (PMRP wants an additional $15,000 from the Borough next year). I cannot deny that an increase might be necessary. However, last night Councilmembers Montanez and Williams spoke of a "surplus" in the 2020 budget. They neglected to account for the money the Borough owes to the Intersection and Signalization Fund and that we don't have enough money to pay the rest of our 2019 bills. (Note: I was on the Budget and Finance committee in 2018 until I was removed for no real reason and replaced with Montanez). Audience members rightfully pointed out that a surplus doesn't exist until it exists as cash in the bank.
The Employees - Last year, I urged the Council to consider an annual Cost of Living Adjustment for the employees regardless of performance. In 2020 the Social Security department set COLA at 1.6%. Due to the increase in the Cost of living, without COLA, employees are essentially getting paid less than they were the previous year. The cost of maintaining our truck fleet goes up every year. We know that we have to pay those costs, yet we can't afford the same level of necessity for human beings that drive those trucks. During a snow event, while we're tucked in our beds, our Road Crew is outside plowing for 10-14 hours a shift. Our employees are subject to the whims and politics of elected officials and do not know from year to year what they will be paid. Asking for a basic COLA every year is not out of line and treats our employees with dignity. 2020 will be the third that wages have not increased.
When we sit down to hire new employees, we say to them, "We only pay X, but we have a great benefits package!" If an employee or their spouse is a veteran or has insurance from another employer, they can opt-out of receiving benefits from the Borough: saving the Borough tens of thousands of dollars. It is my opinion that those employees are entitled to a portion of the money the Borough would use to pay the employees' Health Insurance Premium. The Mount Pocono Municipal Authority recently enacted a policy that gives essentially 30% of what would have been paid to an Insurance company back to the employee that opts out. The Pocono Mountain Regional Policy has a policy that gives 50% back to the employee. Up until last night, the Borough also had a policy that gave 50% back to the employee. While I understand the opposing view of this policy, it is the vilification of the employee that I cannot tolerate. They are not robbing their employers by taking that money. We offer it to them as part of their hiring. I fought hard to get this "waiver benefit" for MPMA employees and I witnessed this vilification by the opposition, particularly from Board and Council member Montanez. That anger carried over to the Borough, and now in 2020, one of our employees will find themselves short over $10,000.
In addition to no raises and cutting the benefit waiver, Council also voted to restructure how vacation days are accrued as per the chart below.
While after seven years of service, employees end up with one additional day than they would have had under the old system, they end up losing a total of six days in years two through six. There was also talk of eliminating the way sick days are carried over from year to year.
It is important to note that these policy changes were not discussed with employees, nor were they made public prior to their adoption. It was not part of the agenda. These items were discussed behind closed doors in an executive session.
Council's Benefits - In one night, the Council voted several times to reduce pay and benefits for employees. Then they tried to make quick work of voting themselves and the Mayor a pay raise and free healthcare. Their reasoning?
Coolbaugh and other townships' supervisors get paid more and get benefits.
Council has not received a raise in 40 years.
Council members need to be treated with respect.
Council members need to be compensated for the "abuse we receive online."
We spend 140,000 for our employees' benefits. We make the decisions so why don't we get benefits?
I'm not making this up. Please check the meeting recording at around the 40-minute mark for the raise discussion and at the 1:30:00 mark for the Insurance discussion.
At around the 1:40:00 mark, you'll hear me lose my cool. I could not sit idly by as Council raised taxes, slashed employee benefits, and then voted to give themselves a raise and Health Insurance. It is obscene and makes true every stereotype of tax and spend politicians that fatten their own wallets.
Please note that Mount Pocono is a fraction of the size of other Townships. References were made to comparing Mount Pocono to Stroudsburg Borough. Stroudsburg Borough's 2018 revenue equaled $6,439,714 and Mount Pocono's equaled $2,118,448. Stroudsburg Borough is 1.74 sq miles with around 5000 residents. Mount Pocono is 3.5 sq miles, with around 3000 residents. So Stroudsburg is half the size of, with 50% more residents than, and three times the revenue of Mount Pocono.
To be clear, the pay raise and Health Insurance would affect only incoming and reelected 2020 Councilmembers. That includes Tom Neville, Claudette Williams, Aida Montanez, and Francis O'boyle. Councilmember O'Boyle was firmly against both measures stating that they need to remember the words of JFK, "Ask not what your country could do for you but what you can do for your country." Fran O'Boyle has volunteered for this community longer than some Councilmembers have been alive (me, Montanez). It was only after my outburst and the negative responses of the citizens in attendance that the Health Care Ordinance was shelved for further discussion. The Council Pay raise will be discussed and voted on during Council's next two sessions (December 16th and 23rd).
It is what it is - After winning an election, The Mayor, The Council President, and the Council President Pro-Tem crafted two ordinances that doubled their pay and made themselves eligible for free healthcare. The burden of paying for those ordinances is expected to be bared by the taxpayers and the employees of the Borough.
So now what? - Mount Pocono, you were warned. The Boro* reported on the planned cuts to employee benefits in August - Read Here.
I am stunned by the hubris of last night's actions by Council President Williams and President Pro-tem Montanez. Both were voted to another four-year term. Stacy Keeler generally votes in lockstep with them, and I don't hold much hope for Tom Neville's alleged maverick status. I also fear for whomever they choose to replace me. I have several "case of beer" bets with friends about their next pick.
You have to attend meetings. You have to demand information. You have to make sure your Council respects the Sunshine Act.
Tom Ford and I will no longer be on Council after January of next year. Tom intends to keep you informed with print and I plan to move forward by streaming meetings. However, we can't do it alone. If you are interested in helping to keep your fellow residents up to date on the Council's actions, please reach out to us.