Wilkes-Barre’s elected public servants and staffers: the Jersey shore, cruises, vacations, and League of Cities resort area seminars

Most of our Wilkes-Barre City elected public servants, staffers, and city employees take vacations like private citizens and attend resort area League of Cities seminars. But . . . there is a difference in who is paying for those excursions and covering them with our taxpayer funded salaries, benefits, and health and life insurances: we, the taxpayers.

Let’s start with the City of Wilkes-Barre’s elected public servants, shall we? First and foremost, are you aware that our mayor, city council members, and city controller aren’t required to punch a clock or log their daily work hours? At present, the taxpayers of our city have no way to reliably verify who is doing what and where, and all while on the city payroll. The elected of our city and their staffers are salaried employees. They get paid regardless of whether they are tending to matters at city hall, cruising the Caribbean, vacationing at their Florida or New Jersey shore homes, fishing, landscaping their yards, grocery shopping, or lunching with friends.

Taxpayers are employers
For the taxpayers that are working and paying the tab here this information might be upsetting and eye-opening, but that’s the way it is and has been for quite some time. The practice of our elected and some staffers being paid for questionable work hours has not been challenged, but that doesn’t make it right. We are the employers of the city elected and the staffers, so to speak. We write the paychecks and pay for their array of benefits. Yet, few of us really knows what any of the elected and the staffers are doing all day.

Our city’s mayor, five city council members, and the city controller are paid for working, or, supposedly working, 32.5 hours per week. But, where is the proof? None is seemingly available. Our elected city council members don’t have specific offices or even a desk at city hall. They say that they work for us while at home or elsewhere via email and telephone, or that they might stop at city hall for documents or agendas.

So, where are the elected ones conducting city taxpayer business? Some of them have private sector full time jobs. Do the math. How does a full time worker then work full time for us—and from where? Are we paying elected officials while they are “at work” elsewhere or visiting Florida, or while they are are, in fact, aboard a cruise liner with their spouse? In some cases the answer is “yes” and they have been playing this game for years.

Taxpayer-provided health benefits
Our mayor is paid close to $80,000 a year in salary alone, and our city council members are paid about $350 a week, with the current chair of the city council, Bill Barrett, taking about $450 a week. Our city controller, Kathryn “Kathy” Kane, is paid over $40,000 a year. To the salaries for unverifiable work hours we may also add the cost of benefits. Should we be paying health benefits for our city’s elected while they are employed or operating a private business elsewhere and without our knowledge or permission as their employers while some of them are covered under their full time employer’s plan? Or, via our city’s health care plan, while an elected is off doing whatever their heart desires? Should we be covering the city’s elected if they are boating and fishing, water skiing, golfing, or working out at a local gym? And what of their families, who are also on the the plans? Are they covered by city taxpayers while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico?

There is a liability factor that needs to be addressed here. Who pays the bills for accidents while an elected or staffer is on the city payroll while cruising or boating in the Gulf of Mexico? Anyone know?

Full time hours for full time pay?
You may know—or perhaps not—that most of our city elected and even some staffers work elsewhere full time or operate businesses. In fact, our mayor operates a real estate firm and has been doing so for decades. Our city council chair, Bill Barrett, works full time at Luzerne County Community College, and former Council Chair Mike Merritt works at a local manufacturing site and such. Two attorneys, Tim Henry and Bill Vinsko, receive paychecks from the city, even though Vinsko, as an Assistant City Attorney, is not authorized by the city charter to be on the payroll, except for special projects. Vinsko operates a property title transfer company, a pharmacy, is or was the lawyer for Bear creek Township, and all in addition to running his own law firm. Henry runs a law firm in Scranton as well as working through the Lackawanna County court system.

Most of the elected and the staffers under our current administration aren’t required to account for any of their work hours. Most of us just assume that we are paying the elected and staffers for full time city hall-based effort. Absolutely incorrect.

So, there you have it. What are we paying for? Questionable work hours and pocket cash for the elected and the staffers on our dime? Seems to be so! No wonder our elected and staffers have extra cash to donate to each others’ campaigns, which amounts to our money being recycled into maintaining the status quo. No wonder our elected and staffers reside in pricey homes or drive top-of-the-line vehicles. We are being suckered by them every payday.

Did you cringe when you noted how much you donated to the city coffers last year with the 2012 municipal income tax’s 3% payroll deducted income tax you paid, or when you received the most recent city property tax bill? How about the long list of fees for whatever the city decides to tax and send to your address?

You are supporting lifestyles that you don’t enjoy and this is wrong in the extreme. Being elected or appointed to a local city government job shouldn’t be compared to hitting the PA Lottery. Just because things, so to speak, have supposedly “always been this way” doesn’t make them alright. Not by a long shot.

Now, the question is, How long are you going to take such taxpayer abuse from what is essentially sneaky city hall elected and staffers? Would your employer keep you on their payroll should you fail to show up at the work site? No. Then why are you allowing our city elected and staffers to play such games—and with your money, no less?

Ask yourself how our elected and some of the staffers can work full time elsewhere and still juggle their municipal responsibilities so as to efficiently manage our city? And especially while they are cruising the “ocean blue”? Is this the reason why our city is in such disarray? Ever try to contact our elusive city controller? Or, Bill Barrett during the day? Where are they? They aren’t in city hall, for sure. But, they are being paid to be there or to be working 32.5 hours per week and that’s 52 weeks out of the year—even if they are away somewhere.

Bear in mind that most employers, which should be considered us taxpayers in regards to city hall salaried municipal employees, prohibit employees from conducting outside business affairs, and especially government-related affairs, while on their dime. But, this is happening right under our noses at our city hall, with email, private cell phones and no proof of verifiable work hours for the city elected and staffers. Go figure.

Other benefits to city employment
Now, let’s get to the benefits we are providing in addition to the city elected and staffer salaries: health, life insurance, and even a retirement plan. Yes, a retirement plan for the city elected. Did you vote to pay for retirements or lifetime health care—in some cases—for the city elected or staffers? I am thinking probably, no. Some city voters still believe or were led to believe that serving as a city council member is an all-volunteer activity. Way wrong!

Think about this: why would a lawyer like Bill Vinsko (the mayor’s first cousin) who wasn’t supposed to be on the city’s payroll from the get go except—again—for special projects, remain on the city payroll without documented proof of any special project time, work hours, or verifying documentation?

Are you aware that Bill Vinsko operates numerous businesses? You tell me where is he all day and what he is doing while on our city payroll.

And here’s another fact: retired Police Chief Bill Barrett, the current city council chair, who has garnered a city retirement, is paid about $450 a week (a sinful amount compared to the average local weekly wage, no?) for his work on that council and also works full time elsewhere. So, how does one contact him during normal city business hours while he is working day shift at his Luzerne County Community College job?

How about Councilman Mike Merritt? He works at a local steel-making plant, not to mention Tom Leighton, who is often seen at a local gym working out during the day.

Taxpayers of our city, open your eyes and your ears. We simply shouldn’t be paying such exorbitant salaries or benefits to the city hall elected and the staffers when we cannot obtain any proof of actual hours worked for the benefit of city residents.

On several occasions I have publicly asked our city council if they could prove their work hours validating their huge weekly $350 or $450 paycheck. Their response? Blind stares, facial blushing, and their notorious, notorious smirks.

We cannot allow our city elected officials and staffers to operate their own games on our dime. It is up to every city voter to demand change and accountability and remove the non-essential pay and benefit takers.

A changing of the guard?
The next elected Wilkes-Barre City administration will hopefully correct the sins of those that have been literally robbing us blind. No longer should we tolerate being salaried, fee’d, or taxed to the hilt, or even expected to pay for an elected official’s gas because, well, because those in power think we owe them a living. Every elected-position salary must be cut by one-half and all benefits immediately terminated, not merely reduced.

This has always been my feeling because king-making isn’t what we should tolerate. What has been done, unfortunately, to us in some cases can be undone, but not in all instances. But one thing is for sure: the salaries and benefits can be substantially reduced or eliminated with documentation of all work hours being required.

Why are you paying for top-of-the-line benefits for the elected and staffers when many city taxpayers who are paying for such premium benefits cannot even afford them for their own families?

Oh, the things they do when we are not watching, or when we aren’t helping to manage our city and other levels of government, or know who the heck we are even electing and why.”

If you care to comment, please email Ms. Urban at Lindaat254@aol.com

  • Linda Urban
  • Member, Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association Board of Directors

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