The city of Chester must pull off a big financial turnaround in the next three years, or face a state takeover.
Last month, consultants laid out of the fifth financial recovery plan for the city in 20 years, this time calling for reducing public safety staff.
Even with the city facing a $16.3 million deficit, Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland said cutting police and fire is not a viable way to save money.
“We understand the bulk of our budget goes to police and fire, but we need both our police and fire departments to be intact,” he said, following a city council meeting on Wednesday. Chester employs 268 full-time, year-round positions across departments, including 106 police officers. It also has high rates of violent crime per capita, and residents responded negatively to the proposed cuts.
Other recommendations from the draft of the recovery plan include reducing staff across city departments by 10 percent, and hiring a full time CFO to track the budget consistently.
Kirkland and other city officials said they are working up alternate measures that will try to keep those staffing numbers up while reducing the public safety budget.
Instead of closing one firehouse and cutting down the police department by ten people, some possible paths to savings include reducing the staff by attrition, restructuring patrol shifts and consolidating two fire stations into one, centralized building.
Until more details about an alternate plan are released in the coming weeks, it is unclear how the Chester can balance the books without reducing emergency services.
Even as they stress the seriousness of Chester’s financial situation, staff at Econsult Solutions, who authored the draft proposal for the state, said the plan is more a menu of options than a mandate.
“We don’t claim that there is only one path to get there,” said Stephen Mullin, principal with Econsult Solutions. “Our objective is the reduction in the structural deficit, not checking off a list of recommendations.” He said existing recommendations in the plan, including the one to layoff police and fire staff, will remain in the draft but city officials may add their own proposals as well.
As for how this plan differs from past attempts to restore Chester to steady financial footing, it comes down to pressure from the state according to Mullin.
In the past, cities had five or ten years to try out different taxes or stimulus plans to try to get rid of a basic imbalance in their expenses and revenues. After changes to Pennsylvania’s Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, or Act 47 in 2014, cities or townships that have been on the state’s Act 47 list for decades no longer have the opportunity renew their “distressed” status indefinitely. Instead, they have to finish out their five year term with better results, or go into state receivership, where a state-appointed official takes over many of the governing powers for a municipality from their own local, elected officials.
For his part, Kirkland said he is firm on keeping Chester under local control — and avoiding receivership — by any means necessary.
“This can has been kicked down the road for 20 years, 20 plus years,” he said. “Everybody has to buy in, everybody has to make some concessions, be it police department, be it firefighters, be it police officers, be it Council, be it our workers. Everybody.”
Chester city council must vote on the newest recovery plan, with City officials’ input, by August 29th.