It has been four years since the state declared the city of Girard to be in fiscal emergency, and it could be another four before the red ink in the operating budget is eliminated. The state fiscal oversight commission, which is directing Girard's economic recovery, has been brutally honest in its assessment: Elected officials, public employees and the citizenry must bite the bullet.
And yet, this headline appeared in the Local Section of Thursday's Vindicator: "Judge awards pay raises despite fiscal emergency." The judge in question is Michael Bernard of the municipal court, who decided to give 16 employees 6-percent pay adjustments as of Aug. 12. But what make Bernard's action even more egregious is the fact that the court is operating in the red and could end the year with a $250,000 shortfall.
Talk about an irresponsible elected official.
The judge argues that court employees received less than 1-percent pay raises between 2001 and 2005 and that the increases were not in step with inflation. He also says the 6-percent adjustments will not increase the deficit because the money is being taken from a surplus in the probation services fund. So what?
The anticipated $250,000 deficit means that expenditures are outstripping revenue. There are only two ways to solve this problem: Increase the money coming in, or cut spending.
Giving raises to employees isn't cutting spending.
Furthermore, Bernard's action is unfair because all four unions in the city have agreed to a pay freeze from 2004 to 2006. To illustrate the seriousness of the city's financial condition, the chairman of the state fiscal oversight commission has developed a plan to balance the budget that calls for cutting the salaries of city council members, laying off three firefighters and eliminating the health department.
So when Judge Bernard bemoans the fact that his employees' salaries have not kept up with inflation, we echo the sentiments of Mayor James Melfi, who said last week, "Quite honestly anyone who feels they are underpaid can look for work elsewhere."
The mayor is right when he contends Bernard's granting of raises "sends the wrong message" and is on the mark in insisting that "... all efforts should be made to emerge from fiscal emergency before any personal raises are given."
Not satisfied with treating his employees as if they are better than the rest, the judge offered his assessment of why the court is in such dire straits: "We run a good tight ship over here, and everyone is doing what they are supposed to do, but the tickets are not coming in."
Bernard says that traffic tickets, which generate revenue, are down by 50 percent over the last three years, while civil filings are up 22 percent over the last year and criminal filings are up 2 percent in that same period.
With regard to his comments about traffic tickets, we wonder if he is suggesting that police officers have been giving traffic violators a pass.
Has he considered the possibility that fewer tickets are being issued because the number of traffic violators has dropped?
Regardless, the court's revenue is down, which means that employees should be biting the bullet, not padding their wallets.