July 15--SCRANTON -- Firefighters here have been running into burning buildings for $7.25 an hour.
"That can inhibit how you perform," said firefighter Bob Zoltewicz, 32, the married father of two, ages 2 and 5 months. "You have to try to keep that salary out of your mental state."
Since the mayor of this financially distressed city decided to deal with budget woes by paring the paychecks of all 400 city workers to minimum wage a week ago, it has been difficult for people to think about much else.
And that kind of distraction, which has made national news, is tough to handle when you labor at life-and-death jobs.
"We come to work regardless of what's happening politically," said Zoltewicz, who was called to a two-alarm blaze at an abandoned property on the city's west side last week. "But $7.25 an hour is crippling."
For police officers, it's the same problem, as they must reconcile the head-spinning fact that there are local high school students with summer jobs scooping ice cream in town who are making $1.25 an hour more.
"It's hard for officers to function with this situation over their heads," said Detective Lt. Bob Martin, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, many of whose members usually make about $56,000, similar to firefighters' salaries. Martin himself said that under the new wage rules, he took home $408 for two weeks' work, about $1,500 short of his normal salary.
He added that, to help defray the 80 percent pay cut, some officers have been selling personal weapons they had bought to augment standard police-issued firearms.
"Now my guys are sacrificing personal and public protection by giving up their personal rifles because these clowns in city government are being dysfunctional and can't figure things out," Martin continued.
"A police officer's got to be focused, and maybe you're not as sharp if you're sitting in the patrol car worrying about how you're going to pay the mortgage on $7.25 an hour. This is the kind of thing that could distract us into oblivion."
Scranton's issues are complex and trace back to years of difficulties. The city of 76,000 mostly white ethnic residents loses population, which erodes the tax base and makes it harder to pay for services.
Meanwhile, as foreclosures have increased while development has stalled, city infrastructure has been rapidly deteriorating. And because of either mismanagement or bad luck -- no one agrees which -- Scranton is seen by banks as a poor bet, and has a hard time getting loans.
Currently, there is a $16.8 million budget shortfall, and Mayor Christopher Doherty has said the city requires a 78 percent property-tax hike over the next three years or must face draconian service cuts.
The City Council balked at the huge increase. "People can't afford that," Council President Janet Evans said in an interview, explaining that Scranton is a blue-collar city with 24 percent poverty and a high number of unemployed and elderly residents.
Doherty, along with the city's solicitor, its business administrator, and other officials, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Council suggested other ways of creating revenue, such as enhanced parking-meter programs, a tax on parking lots, a commuter tax, and getting more tax money from nonprofits.
'Lines in the sand'
The mayor and Council couldn't agree on the proposed remedies. "This is all personality politics," said Jean Harris, a political science professor at the University of Scranton whose specialty is local and state government.
While the mayor and all five council members are Democrats, their unusually vitriolic personal antagonism has created a dicey oil-and-water combination that is withering the city, Harris said.
"Both City Council and the mayor are drawing lines in the sand, and that is not the way government works."