Yesterday, the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania announced that due to ongoing budget problems and the threat of bankruptcy, all of Scranton’s 398 city workers — including cops and firefighters — will be paid minimum wage effective immediately.
Ask 10 Scrantonians who and/or what is to blame for their city’s seemingly inexorable slide into insolvency and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. OK, maybe seven. Or even five. Whatever the number, they’ll all be right to one degree or another. Scranton’s cash crunch has been years in the making and — in my opinion, at least — is the product of four forces: An eroded and aging tax base; Pennsylvania’s system of tiny, autonomous municipalities; expensive public-safety union contracts, and a fractious and parochial political culture.
The first three ingredients in that recipe would be manageable if the fourth weren’t so completely dysfunctional. The current mess is largely due to a power struggle between Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty and a veto-proof “super-majority” on the city council that’s led by Council President Janet Evans. Doherty has been trying without success for years to rein in union labor costs through a state-backed recovery plan; the unions in turn have fought back furiously with the help of local pols like Evans. The result has been a back-and-forth stalemate of sorts, with the courts occasionally stepping in to make matters worse.
Here are seven cartoons drawn by Cole dating back to November 2010, tracing the arc of Scranton’s decline:
A state court sided with the police and fire unions, thus putting Scranton on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to cover back pay and future pay raises. The city hadn't anywhere near the means to cover the tab. It still doesn't, in fact.
Just as the city pleaded poverty, the city discovered $3 million in parking meter receipts. It's the latest example of a government too incompetent to account for the revenue it has on hand.
Barack Obama came to town, offering a reminder to Scrantonians of how similar their own local government is to the polarized, obstructionist and ineffective mess in Washington, DC.
Saddled with local school and city taxes while supporting a number of non-profit institutions (three hospitals, two universities and many social service organizations), Scranton's tax base has been effectively picked clean.
Around Christmas last year, the state Supreme Court sided with the city's police and fire unions, effectively saying that the state's recovery plan cannot preempt arbitration or the unions' contracts and ending the city's legal argument. This set the stage for the city's current financial nightmare.
In late June, the council super-majority voted not to pay off the Scranton Parking Authority's city-guaranteed bonds, effectively placing the authority and city in default. Quite predictably, lenders took flight and the city's credit line effectively disappeared. (The council furiously back-pedaled on this issue a week later, but the damage was done). Coincidentally, the council also pushed a 67-percent raise for its solicitor, who earlier had told the council he saw no problem with its decision to default.
Facing payless paydays for its employee and vendors threatening to cut off supplies for things like gas to power its police cruisers, Scranton weighs bankruptcy.