Harrisburg’s fire contract is ratified, but city leaders still remain concerned about a seven-figure deficit in the 2014 budget. The mayor has initiated a hiring freeze to reduce costs.
For weeks, Mayor Eric Papenfuse touted council’s delay to ratify the fire contract burned $17,000 a week from city expenses. Well, last week council ratified the contract. Yet, city officials explain there’s still at least a $1.8 million deficit remaining.
Controller Charles DeBrunner said the figure is just one number that has been tossed around, but the true deficit is hard to detect. He explained, given that 2014 is the first year under the new court-approved recovery plan (Harrisburg Strong), and calculating revenues is a difficult task.
Since the city relinquished control to key assets like the city’s parking system, water and sewer systems, DeBrunner said the year-end revenues are tough to estimate without a prior history.
"We've been dealing with this since the beginning of the year," said DeBrunner.
The 2014 budget is a $57.5 million dollar spending plan. Right now, the expenses outweigh the revenues to some extent. In order to keep the gap manageable, Mayor Papenfuse said a hiring freeze would take place to reduce costs.
On Monday, city spokesperson Joyce Davis said at least four key positions have been put on hold. Two codes enforcement officers, an assistant to Economic Development Director Jackie Parker, and a Business Administrator.
Codes positions are needed to help the city fight blight and keep track of troubled landlords. Parker is working on an Econ Development plan by herself, but needs the added help to formulate and execute such a plan. The Business Administrator would help the city negotiate contracts, cuts costs, oversee all city departments to control their progress and efficiency.
“I think it would be very inappropriate, if we don’t think we can afford to have these people, to hire them and turn around and not pay them or lay them off," DeBrunner said.
Mayor Papenfuse has vowed no layoffs at this time.
Battling budget deficits is nothing new for Harrisburg. Yet, given the transition between fiscal decline to state takeover to recovery, the past few years have been quite an anomaly for the city.
Recent deficits have been recorded as $16M in 2013, $13M in 2012, and $3.5M in 2011.
Again, given 2014 is the first year in a new administration, a new recovery plan, and a set of revenues generated for the city, the true deficit is like playing arcade-style basketball – the target figure keeps moving back-and-forth unexpectedly.
"There's a lot of moving parts and a lot of unusual moving parts in this year's revenue, said DeBrunner. "It's a tight year. There's no question about it. I don't think anyone expected it to be otherwise. We're going to have a couple of tight years."