SCRANTON, Pa. – The economic crisis that prompted the mayor of this financially-strapped city to slash everyone on the public payroll to minimum wage has sparked hundreds of smaller-scale budget disasters, ones dealt with over kitchen tables by grim-faced spouses and parents with little control of their fates.
Veteran firefighter Bob Zoltewicz, who made $22 an hour until a little more than a week ago, said Mayor Christopher Doherty's drastic move, which he says was in reaction to the City Council's intransigence on a proposal to raise taxes, has plunged his family of four into panic.
“It was shocking,” said Zoltewicz, as he and wife Aime sipped coffee at the kitchen table of their modest, two-story home in a middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of Scranton. “I opened up the envelope and, surely enough, it was minimum wage. My wife and I immediately talked about it and played through different scenarios, asking how are we going to make ends meet?"
In cutting the pay of the city's 400-strong workforce, including his own on July 6, Doherty defied a judge's order. Municipal workers' unions have gone to court to get a judge to hold Doherty in contempt, and the state has offered to help Scranton, which bills itself as the "Electric City," dig out of its fiscal problems. But in the meantime, workers don't know when their full pay will be restored. For those living paycheck to paycheck like the Zoltewicz family, the last week and a half has been a nightmare.
“Right now, we are running on savings, which we were doing before this happened because we just had our second child. My wife has just gone back to work part-time and we’ve gone through three months of our savings,” he said.
Bob Zoltewicz was the sole earner of the household, while his wife Aime was on maternity leave as a hairdresser after giving birth to Farrah and taking care of their 2-year-old daughter Malaini. At just $7.25 an hour, the economics don't work. It's not even close. Zoltewicz also noted that the last time he earned minimum wage was working as a video store clerk while in high school.
“Even when I was in college, I worked part-time in an insurance agency and my rate back then was higher than it is right now,” he added.
Aime has gone back to work, but only part-time for now. Bob is considering taking a second job. The two estimate that they can live on their savings for another three weeks before possibly having to subsist on credit cards or loans.
The city of Scranton has dealt with escalating budget woes for nearly two decades. In recent years the city’s workers had to endure an eight-year pay freeze without so much as a cost of living wage increase. The city's latest problems reached a boiling point after the City Council blocked Doherty's plan to raise taxes to cover a $16.8 million shortfall, opting instead to borrow money to cover the budget gap. Doherty said city coffers were down to just $5,000, leaving him no choice but to cut the pay of all city workers, including teachers, cops and firefighters.
Doherty's move prompted a flurry of legal maneuvers by attorneys representing city workers. A motion seeking to have the mayor held in contempt of court for violating a judge's order that paychecks be issued in full will be heard in Lackawanna County Court on July 24. Separately, two federal suits have been filed; one a class-action suit on behalf of all city workers seeking to have their full pay restored, and the other a suit on behalf of 10 firefighters and police officers who had their disability pay cut off as part of Doherty's action.
Doherty and the five-member City Council -- who have a long history of being at odds -- are currently trying to negotiate a budget deal. The state has offered a package that includes a $2 million interest-free loan and a $250,000 grant if the elected officials can hammer out a financial recovery plan by Aug. 15. Doherty said the state money could help the city tread water while it awaits approval of $16.8 million in bonds by banks. Nearly $10 million of that would go toward paying bills, while the rest would refinance existing bonds.
For now, Scranton can't convince a bank to sell its bonds, according to Doherty. He says lenders want to see a financial recovery plan that shows how the city would pay off the bonds.
If the stalemate between the mayor the City Council continues, the Zoltewiczes, lifelong residents of the eastern Pennsylvania Rust Belt city, say they may be forced to move out.
“We said we were going to give this time, because we have our lives invested here," Bob Zoltewicz said. "But if there comes a point where it’s not going to turn around, we might come to the point where we say, ‘Yeah, we have to leave the area.'"