Earlier this week I logged into my personal Facebook account, and just like every other time I log into Facebook, there was a small selection of “trending articles” sitting at the top of the stream. I always take a quick glance through the trending articles, but most of the time it consists of puff pieces of speculation surrounding what girl from whichever season of 16 and Pregnant is expecting again, or what celebrities are filing for divorce. This time, however, I immediately recognized a face and the name of a city. The story: Scranton mayor slashes pay for all city workers–including police and firefighters–to minimum wage; the picture was the very smug face of Scranton, Pennsylvania Mayor Chris Doherty speaking into a microphone; his hand up, index finger extended, mid-speech, and most likely attempting to emphasize a point. Over 30,000 people had read the story by the end of the day, it was in steady circulation on popular news channels and websites, and by Wednesday afternoon, even Gawker got in on the story that Scranton is broke, and Scranton really only has itself to blame.
Scranton, Pennsylvania is my hometown. I was born there, raised there, and I moved far enough away from there just as soon as I could. It isn’t that growing up in Scranton was terrible, because it really wasn’t. I have fantastic memories of riding my bike in the alley a block down from my house, hanging out with my friends who all lived within a two-block radius, and knowing that I had to go home at night when the streetlights came on or when I heard my dad, grandmother, or aunt yelling my name from the back porch. As a teenager, I walked around Scranton without a care in the world; without feeling the need to look over my shoulder; without fear. I walked the nearly two miles from my house to the Steamtown Mall in downtown Scranton on any given afternoon, and walked back any time between 9:00 and 11:00PM. I walked alone, at night, and there was no reason why I couldn’t.
A little over four years ago, my fiance and I moved not even 30 miles away from Scranton, to a small borough exactly 1.3 miles long and home to about 700 people. We never looked back to Scranton as a possible place to settle down and make our home–not once. When we were looking at houses before finding the one we moved into in February, located in the same borough that we had been living in for a few years, we absolutely refused to even consider a house located in Scranton. When we saw a house listed for sale and it looked like something we may want to take a look at, if we noticed it was located in Scranton, we would move right along to the next listing. We wanted nothing to do with the city, and considering the steady decline in the population over the past decade alone, we haven’t been the only ones, and we won’t be the last.
I live a little under 30 miles from Scranton, but it feels like I live in a completely different world. Scranton has changed so drastically in just the last handful of years that it’s hard to remember growing up there and walking around the city like I used to. When I visit my family, who live in the same house I grew up in, the city’s absolutely downtrodden state shocks me every single time. What used to be a community of hardworking middle-class Americans raising their families, having barbecues on Saturday afternoons, and sitting on their porches during summer nights talking with neighbors is long gone. When you drive up the street I grew up on, a quarter of the houses on the block are condemned or abandoned; the others look as worn out as the people who live in them. There are no people sitting on their front porches enjoying the day, and there are no children racing each other to the end of the block on their bikes. Scranton’s soul has been sucked out from it, leaving a poverty-stricken hollow shell marked up with graffiti and several feet-high weeds.
Scranton is broke, but this isn’t exactly news. Scranton has been broke for a long time. Throughout the past few years the local newspapers have reported about the city’s financial woes repeatedly, but because either the city officials didn’t know what to do, or they didn’t deem the bleak state of the finances as bad enough, or the residents reading these stories didn’t think it affected them so they didn’t make enough of a ruckus about it, nothing was really done about it. The city just kept accumulating more debt, and then some more, until they literally had a day’s worth of money left and no one willing to lend more.
Throughout the past number of years, the previously-elected City Council had allowed Mayor Chris Doherty to recklessly throw money at several projects the city didn’t need. Scranton is in debt of upwards of $3.4 million that is owed to various vendor bills, including health insurance, but Nay Aug Park has a public swimming pool with a new slide and a very large tree house that, if my research and the people I have spoken to about it are correct, cost a lot more money than it should have. Sure, they are nice attractions to have for some, but when you’re confronted with the dilemma of trying to decide whether to pay the bills or put that money towards a luxury or entertainment purpose, is there really a decision that needs to be made here? Money has also been wasted on a dog park that has been referred to as the most overpriced dog park in the country, and this is for a city where the vast majority of people who own a home have a yard large enough for a dog or two to run around and play in. Millions of dollars have also reportedly “disappeared” in the last decade, and Scranton resident’s heads turn to Mayor Doherty for an explanation, of which there has been none.
A lot of the blame for the mayor’s extreme decision to cut salary wages for city workers is being put on the newly-elected Scranton City Council. While the City Council is commonly responsible for writing the city’s budget, Mayor Doherty put forward his own budget, which called for a 78% tax increase over three years, and demanded the City Council to pass it. When they refused, he filed a lawsuit against them in an attempt to force them into voting ‘yes’ on his financial plan. The people who sit on the City Council today have been known to fight the mayor tooth and nail on issues. Very much unlike those who used to sit on the council, these people have made it known that they are not so willing to do what the mayor says, when he says it, and how he says to do it. Considering all of the money that has been wasted, and the amount of backlash Mayor Chris Doherty has received by an increasing number of Scranton’s residents, I think that City Council’s pause and concern is valid, and even admirable at times. To many, this City Council vs. Mayor Chris Doherty issue seems like a political problem, but what is unique about this particular case is that both the City Council and mayor are solidly Democratic. Instead of this being a game of partisan politics, it is instead a series of personal vendettas–and it is the residents of the city who have suffered enough because of it.
As of this past week, all city workers in Scranton earn $7.25 per hour, despite the fact that unions representing city workers won a court injunction ordering the mayor not to cut pay. In addition to the smaller checks being sent anyway, overtime and disability payments were also cut. As a result, the union went back to court, asking a judge to hold the mayor and the city in contempt of court. (The court has not yet held a hearing on the request.) On one hand, it may seem like a welcome change for city workers, especially the mayor himself, to earn minimum wage, considering that is what a large fraction of the city’s residents have been attempting to live on for years. However, this slash in pay also applies to Scranton’s police officers and firefighters–people who have undergone schooling and training in order to perform the duties of their jobs, and who put their lives on the line each and every day they show up to work. I don’t know about you, but if my home had somehow caught on fire, or if someone was attempting to break into my home, or if I was somehow in danger and needed the urgent help of emergency services, I want to know that someone is going to show up. The role of police officers and firefighters is to serve and protect their communities, and they are owed a lot more than $7.25 an hour; they deserve a lot more than that.
So, Scranton, Pennsylvania is broke, and not only is the city broke, but it is devastatingly broke. As of today, however, there just may be light at the end of the tunnel for Scranton–if the people who got the city into this mess are willing to work together to save it, even temporarily. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development has offered the city $2.25 million if Mayor Doherty and the City Council can reach an agreement on a revised financial recovery plan by August 1st, and then approve it within two weeks. It kind of feels like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey in order to get from point A to point B. I guess that’s what it takes to get some elected officials to do their jobs–by an outside source coming in, putting a bribe on the table, and then treating grown adults like children who have never been taught the concept of discipline.
Photo by Dougtone/Flickr