Lackawanna City Council members, rebuffed in their efforts to get a fuller picture of the city’s fiscal outlook from the mayor and city comptroller, are asking the State Comptroller’s Office for help.
The Council voted unanimously Monday to request a full audit and budget review of city finances, following another session in which they failed to be satisfied that the city will have enough money in the coming years to pay for growing expenses.
A scheduled work session between City Comptroller Peggy Bigaj-Sobol and the Council was canceled earlier Monday when she asked to be excused because of illness.
Bigaj-Sobol did not attend the regular meeting, either.
Council members have become increasingly concerned about the city’s finances since former City Comptroller Robert C. Marciniak informed them during budget conversations earlier this year that the city would be in the red within two years if revenues stayed neutral.
Bigaj-Sobol took over the post in July, and the Council began requesting budget projections from her as early as late August.
Bigaj-Sobol finally responded in a letter to the Council this week stating that Council President Henry R. Pirowski’s request for a four-year fiscal outlook of the city’s general fund was “not only unrealistic but not financially or legally sound as the city must stay within the Constitutional tax limit and the property tax cap.”
Some Council members viewed the letter as further stonewalling.
“I feel we’re being put off. We’re looking for simple things. We’re asking for projections,” said 4th Ward Councilman Keith E. Lewis, who introduced the resolution requesting a state audit.
Council members have delayed voting on a new contract for city firefighters until they get more answers about how Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski plans to pay for raises in the proposed deal.
And the lack of a vote drew about a dozen firefighters to Council Chambers again Monday.
“Give us an answer so we can move on,” Lt. James J. Fino said. “I don’t think we should be held hostage for that.”
The firefighters stomped out of the meeting en masse when it became clear that the Council wasn’t going to vote on their contract, which has been in limbo since it was first brought to the Council for approval Sept. 2.
Earlier this year, Council members did approve new contracts for police officers, public works crews and clerical employees, which are expected to add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city’s expense line over the next few years.
Pirowski told the firefighters he shared in their frustration.
“I asked for a set of numbers from our comptroller,” he said. “For two months, we have not received those numbers.”
In a telephone interview after the meeting, Szymanski said he welcomed a state audit.
“I’m all in favor if it. I asked for one three years ago, maybe four,” said Szymanski, who was serving as a councilman at the time. “Nothing happened.”
The mayor defended Bigaj-Sobol, saying she was doing the work of two people in the City Comptroller’s Office and had other more important projects to complete before getting to the Council’s request.
Szymanski also contended that city revenues are growing, in part due to reassessments of former Bethlehem Steel land parcels.
Those reassessments are being challenged by the landowner, Tecumseh Redevelopment, some Council members pointed out.
“Show me where the revenues are growing,” Lewis said. “Show us the revenue. Where’s it coming in?”