Fiscal Blight in Scranton: What Would Dwight Schrute Do?
Scranton, Pennsylvania is famous for its nearby anthracite coal deposits, its first-in-the-nation electric streetcar system and museum, and as the site of the regional office of fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin of the television sitcom, The Office.
Now Scranton is famous for making its city employees the lowest paid government workers, on whole, in the nation. Just this week, city workers in Scranton, Pennsylvania took on that city's budget deficit burden with mandatory pay cuts - big cuts. All city workers in Scranton are now paid minimum wage -- $7.25 per hour.
Scranton's checkbook has a balance of $133,000, but owes vendors $3.4 million. So, something had to give.
Under Mayor Doherty's austerity pay plan, policemen, firemen, garbage collectors and the streets engineer, for example, are now paid just $7.25 per hour. If this seems unusual - it's because it is unusual. It could also be illegal (soon-to-be filed lawsuits will sort-out those legal questions). It could be dangerous if public safety workers like policemen and firemen simply walked-off the job, although this seems unlikely at this point.
As I read the news story about Scranton's minimum wage solution, I thought the mayor must either be crazy or a genius. Maybe he's both. So, I called Mayor Doherty's office to see if he was indeed serious about the pay cuts or whether there might be other matters at play here. Well, the mayor was understandably too busy to take my call as he was fielding calls from news organizations (and elected officials) around the globe.
But, a nice lady who answered the phone in Mayor Doherty's office spent about 10 minutes with me explaining the situation. She said that she and other city employees have already received their first paychecks under the mayor's minimum wage doctrine, but that the vast majority of employees are still working; and that there have been no mass walk-outs by city employees. She was also quick to add that they have been promised all back pay once the budget issues are resolved, although it's difficult to know when that might happen. She also acknowledged the personal hardships in making mortgage payments and paying bills caused by the pay cut. Vendors providing materials and services to the City itself have also stopped delivering due to non-payment, making job conditions for city workers even more difficult.
But, what I really wanted to know was -- why did the mayor implement such a drastic and unusual measure to balance the budget? It would seem that cutting every city worker to minimum wage would induce mutiny and chaos. Couldn't the city take other actions, like filing bankruptcy ala Stockton, CA, or institute mandatory furloughs or unpaid vacation days for city workers, or even raise taxes or service fees?
Her answer was yes, other solutions were discussed.
But, just as we've seen elsewhere, whether at the local or national level, an inability to compromise on the part of elected officials results in suboptimal solutions. In Scranton's case, the mayor and city council could not meet in the middle. The City Council wanted to borrow money and cut taxes, while the mayor sought a tax increase. In the end, the mayor chose to act by exercising executive authority to help avoid default.
I can't really fault the mayor for wanting to act in the face of a political stalemate over very critical fiscal issues. But, I do find it lamentable when elected officials are unable or unwilling to put ideological differences aside and work together to resolve matters in the best possible manner for the good of the public. And, I think I'm not alone in this regard.
In the meantime, Scranton politicians would do well to heed the words of fictional character Dwight Schrute from The Office:
"Before I do anything I ask myself "Would an idiot do that?" And if the answer is yes, I do not do that thing."
Good luck Scranton.