Mayor says Act 47 entry averted dozens of layoffs

Donna Royer, a regular attendee at city government meetings, was the only member of the general public at a presentation of the 2014 expense budget at a City Council meeting Monday.

After hearing interim Manager Omar Strohm detail the $28.4-million spending program largely dictated by the city’s Act 47 recovery plan, Mayor Bill Schirf wondered what it would have been like had the city not entered Act 47 – the state’s distressed municipalities program.

It wouldn’t have been placid like Monday evening if – as predicted by Strohm’s predecessor Joe Weakland – the city would have had to eliminate 40 positions, including 10 police, eight firefighters and 10 public works employees to make ends meet without Act 47’s help, Schirf said.

But Altoona entered the program in December, and for 2013 broke even in operations with help from the additional earned-income-tax revenue made possible by Act 47, which allowed Strohm to pay forward last year’s unassigned end-of-year $1.3-million fund balance, while setting aside $494,000 as a contingency.

Perhaps the biggest factor in determining the expense budget for 2014 is the employee compensation freeze imposed by the recovery plan.

Employee health insurance costs – the most expensive employee benefit – will rise, however.

The budget predicts 10 percent, although that’s a guess, because actual rates aren’t known yet.

Still, that would amount to only a $33,000 increase, Strohm said.

Among costs expected to rise for 2014 are general insurance, up 10 percent to $285,000; legal services, up $25,000 to $45,000 because of the possibility of arbitration as the city tries to negotiate new contracts with its unions; WiFi maintenance, a new item transferred from the capital budget predicted to cost $77,000; information technology services for police, a new item expected to cost $35,000 because a consultant is handling work previously done by an officer whose post was eliminated by the recovery plan; and police training, up $12,000 to $30,000 because a spate of Act 47-inspired retirements eliminated many knowledgeable officers.

Among costs expected to shrink for 2014 are the deputy police chief’s salary, because the recovery plan ordered his post to disappear; police academy training, previously $20,000, but eliminated now because the city is hiring only certified applicants; and fire department overtime, down $50,000 to $225,000 because of policy changes reducing call-offs and a grant to hire new firefighters.

Councilman Dave Butterbaugh complained about the cost of longevity pay, which reflects years of service for employees.

The total amount of longevity for 2014 is $333,000 – all but $43,000 of it for police and firefighters, Butterbaugh said.

“It’s one of my biggest frustrations,” he said. “A third of a million dollars for a bonus.”

It may be a bonus, but it’s one the city is obligated to pay to union members, having negotiated it as part of employment contracts, Butterbaugh conceded.

Some who get it have worked hard and earn that consideration, he said.

Others, however, put in the time but don’t provide the “value-added” that seniority implies, he said.

The city needs approval for the expense budget from the Pennsylvania Economy League, which is part of the Act 47 coordinator team.

The city will introduce the budget formally at its Nov. 13 meeting, present it to Blair County Court on Nov. 15 at a special millage and earned income tax hearing and adopt the spending plan Dec. 11.