Monessen councilman Josh Retos had three goals for city finances at the end of 2014: keep tax rates the same, break even between expenses and revenues, and lower the amount the city borrows for its tax anticipation loan.
Only one of the three will come to pass.
While city property taxes will hold steady in 2015, council announced its current budget is nearly $350,000 in the red.
Council approved a $600,000 tax anticipation note from PNC bank Wednesday, $100,000 more than last year’s loan. Retos called the city’s predicament “agonizing.”
“If this is baseball, being successful one out of three times is great. I’d be an All-Star,” said Retos, who chairs the city’s department of accounts and finance. “But only one of these goals were accomplished and that’s no good. That’s horrible.”
Retos and other council members said the city got hit by a double whammy: major shortfalls in anticipated revenues and going well over budget in spending.
Councilwoman Lucille D’Alfonso cited a snafu in spending where money that should have been allocated for the parks fund and health center project was spent elsewhere. Council discovered the massive debt last week, she said.
D’Alfonso and Councilwoman Patty Bukowski added that the city came up short approximately $30,000 in code enforcement revenue, usually collected through fines, occupancy permits, and other payments to the city.
Retos said several departments went well over budget, including overtime in the police and street departments.
“We were over budget $17,000 here, $11,000 there and it adds up,” Retos said. “I can tell you that in 2015, all departments and city employees will be monitored much more tightly and will be far more mindful of spending because of the end-of-the-year consequences.”
Retos also said the city collected much less in garbage fees and tax money than anticipated — and that could be a continuing problem in the years to come.
Mayor Lou Mavrakis claimed that earlier this year, he predicted the city would end up $90,000 in the red.
Mavrakis faulted the previous administration, saying it “drastically overexaggerated revenue and underestimated expenses.”
The mayor showed how the city’s 2014 budget was approximately $587,000 less than in 2013.
Retos countered that the budget deficit is the current council’s issue.
“This is our problem, and this is an issue that has been coming down the pike through many administrations,” Retos said. “We need to tackle this (debt) head-on, but at the same time, make sure our services are not affected because at the end of the day, the taxpayers are the most important people.”
Retos said the extra $100,000 in tax anticipation money will be used in 2015 to pay down the previous year’s debt and that the city will receive an additional three months before the loan matures. The note approved Wednesday will carry a 1.78 percent interest rate until Aug. 31, 2015.
In a controversial move, council voted to furlough street department head Leonard Billy, another unidentified full-time street department worker and two part-time parking meter attendants.
Retos said the city will save upwards of $11,000 for the moves, which might be needed to meet insurance payments and the final two payrolls of the year.
The motion passed 4-1 with Mavrakis in lone opposition. All four city employees will return to work Dec. 29 — the first pay period of the new year.
City business owner and resident Buzzy Byron questioned the temporary layoff of Billy, who makes $45,000 per year.
“I’m not a smart man but I do have common sense,” Byron said. “Nobody knows the ins and outs of the city streets like Leonard. With the weather getting bad, why would you get rid of such a key player at this stage in the game?”
After the meeting, Retos said the decision was not easy.
“Leonard has done nothing wrong and I have nothing but respect for him. I hated having to go to the garage and tell him it was coming,” Retos said. “It’s frustrating because we don’t want to furlough people, but we need every dime.
“This is not where I envisioned us being. This is something we know now, and hopefully we learned from.”
Before the meeting ended, Mavrakis kept pushing his plan to move city operations into the Monessen Public Library and said he has a potential buyer for the current Municipal Complex that wants to convert the building into a “gated community” for middle income senior citizens.
The sale would free the city from nearly $100,000 in expenses to operate the building, Mavrakis said, and the city is already paying hundreds of thousands of dollars into the library.
Mavrakis’ insistence on the library move drew criticism from Bukowski.
“I don’t agree and other people on council do not agree about going to the library and we have said this for over a month,” Bukowski said. “My objection is that’s not big enough to house us. Where are we going to put the council chambers?”
Mavrakis responded that council could hold its meetings in an upstairs conference room at the library or possibly use the Monessen No. 1 fire department’s social hall.
“So let’s move here, oh no, this month, let’s go here,” she retorted. “Like I said, we’re gypsies … I think we need our own place.”
Mavrakis shot back.
“You’re a gypsy… I’m not!” the mayor said. “Let’s stay here like you want and let’s lose $100,000 a year.”
Ron Mozer, who operates Crystalline Technologies LLC out of the city-owned Eastgate 11 building, hinted he was ready to move his business to a neighboring municipality.
“I’d like to make a suggestion. Eastgate 11, the downstairs is in reasonably good shape and the upstairs is a disaster as you’re well aware,” Mozer said. “There is plenty of office space downstairs to house city council. If you could sell this building, you can move over there, put all your records upstairs and you’d be fine.
“After all, you’re a shrinking community, you don’t see a future and that would be the best thing to do, downsize and keep going.”
In other action, council:
• Approved Richard Lignelli to perform appraisals on city-owned buildings at Eastgate 8 (the municipal complex), Eastgate 11 and 100 Third Street (the former City Hall).
• Accepted the resignation of police Lt. Carl Fronzaglio (effective Jan. 31, 2015) and the retirement of animal control officer Fred Moran (effective Dec. 31.)
• Purchased a fence in the amount of $2,675 to be installed at Shawnee Park.
• Spent an additional $11,190 of Community Development Block Grant funds for electrical installation and landscaping of the Brown Street Clock located outside the public safety building.
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 724-684-2635.