It’s hard to tell a city with one of the highest murder rates in Pennsylvania to lay off police officers.
This is just one of the admittedly “extreme” measures proposed by state-hired consulting firm, Econsult Solutions, to reduce Chester’s ballooning deficit and balance the budget. At a hearing Tuesday evening, residents tore into the city’s proposed financial recovery plan, which calls for reducing public safety staff and hiking taxes.
More than 200 people crammed into Chester City Hall’s windowless community room, many standing in the back or spilling out into the hallway.
“You’re talking about cutting back police officers in a city where people getting killed every week,” said Chester resident Tohran Freeman, echoing a concern raised by many at the meeting. The financial recovery plan calls for reducing the 106 person squad by “at least 10.”
The plan also calls for cutting back the City’s fire department, eliminating a company located in the western part of the city.
“We cannot lose our fire company,” said 74-year-old Charlie Warren. “We have old dwellings. They are matchboxes.” Chester City firefighter Jason Gray said that the city’s fire department was already operating below best practice staffing levels, and that cuts would endanger both residents and fire department staff.
In addition to cutting costs, the plan proposes growing revenues through a temporary increase in local earned income tax and imposing a new amusement tax, tacking on five percent to event tickets sold in the city.
This financial recovery plan is the fifth presented to Chester residents since 1995, when the city first fell under state oversight through a law called Act 47. Act 47 grants the state special powers to intervene in municipalities that — through structural deficits or mismanagement — struggle to pay their bills and provide services. Like a lot of places on Pennsylvania’s “financially distressed” list, Chester’s population contracted over the last 50 years and many of its current residents are low-income, shrinking the tax base substantially.
According to Econsult’s Stephen Mullin, a 2014 change to Act 47 law means that the state is demanding faster results to turn around distressed municipalities.
“It isn’t five years, it isn’t 10 years … the city has to get in structural balance, its finances in structural balance, in only three years,” he told residents. That timeline drives the new plans aggressive cuts.
In 2018, the state will once again evaluate Chester’s finances and make one of three actions: extend its recovery status again, release it from Act 47, or appoint a receiver take charge of the city’s direction.
“If these things are done,” said Mullin, meaning all of the recommendations in the recovery plan, “then we will have a surplus in 2017.” The current structural deficit is between $5 million and $8 million a year.
By directing cuts at personnel, Mullin said the firm is trying to reduce costs where they have gone haywire.
According to the plan, “disastrous” concessions made in a 2012 police union contract and growing overtime costs have driven up spending on pension and health benefits for police officers. At the same time, the “Police Pension Fund is on the verge of collapse,” the report said.
As for why this plan will work in creating an upward trajectory when past plans didn’t, Mullin said it’s about doing all of the recommended cost cutting measures at once, “or their equivalent,” rather than cherry-picking relying on one-time infusions of cash to fix a downward trend.
Still, many residents at the hearing expressed frustration at successive waves of outside consultants dictating the city’s future.
“I’m tired of our community being controlled as a colony, like outside forces,” said Minister Keith Muhammad. “Let’s get together to form an acceptable plan that does not cut police, that doesn’t cut fire, but we will have to make some cuts.”
Chester City Council will take questions on the plan in a meeting on Aug. 10. Act 47 gives that body until Aug. 27 to vote to adopt or reject the plan.