After heated public debate, the Chester City Council has passed a plan to try to reverse its financial decline.
The plan is a roadmap — or a menu of options — for the city to increase revenues and reduce operating costs, which have been out of balance for more than 20 years. That trajectory earned the city continuous oversight by Pennsylvania officials during the same period under the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act known as Act 47.
At a special session Friday morning, the council passed an amended version of a plan proposed by Econsult Solutions, a state-backed consulting firm, as about 20 police officers and a handful of residents looked on.
That quiet passage was in marked contrast with an initial public hearing on the recovery plan.
On Aug. 2, representatives of Econsult drew stiff criticism from residents at a packed public hearing on their recovery plan. Among the most unpopular suggestions was a significant reduction of police and fire department staff, cutting about 33 people and eliminating one fire station. Public safety spending makes up a large part of the Delaware County city’s operating budget.
City officials softened some of the language in the new plan, although the goal of reducing the police staff by approximately 10 officers remains, according to Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland.
“It’s not us laying them off, it’s them simply retiring from the position that they’ve held for so long,” said Kirkland, following the council vote. “We have a number of police officers that are at that point in their career.”
The plan also includes a recommendation to reduce the fire department staff by merging two existing locations in a new — as yet not built — central location.
Under Act 47, the state of Pennsylvania has the right to appoint a receiver to run Chester if locally elected officials don’t start reversing its mounting deficit by 2018.
With the clock ticking, the city is already tightening its belt and carrying out some of the proposed cost-saving measures, according to Kirkland.
“We started by reducing overtime. We started by talking to the various employees about health plan buy in,” he said.
In addition to approving the recovery plan as a whole, the council voted to hire a full-time chief financial officer, and it is advertising a measure to raise the city’s earned income tax, one of the state’s suggestions for raising revenues. Kirkland said officials are still in talks about another proposed revenue source, an amusement tax on ticketed events.
Long term, Kirkland said, he would like to court larger businesses to locate in the city, to shift more of the tax burden away from residents.
Through sometimes tense meetings, Kirkland has maintained he is serious about avoiding a state takeover.
“We have a difficult task in front of us, and this task has been in front of other elected officials who chose to close their eyes to it,” he said. “Our goal is definitely not to be pushed off that receiver cliff.”
According to the language in the plan, that hangs on successfully implementing more than 150 recommendations — or finding equivalent savings in the next two years. “The margin provided, even with strict recommendations, is thin,” it says.
For the full text of the amended recovery plan, see below: