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The city of Scranton, Pa., sent out paychecks to its employees Friday, like it does every two weeks. But this time the checks were much smaller than usual. Mayor Chris Doherty has reduced everyone's pay — including his own — to the state's minimum wage: $7.25 an hour.
Doherty says his city has run out of money.
Scranton has had financial troubles for a couple of decades — the town has been losing population since the end of World War II. But the budget problems became more serious in recent months as the mayor and the city council fought over how to balance the budget.
Doherty wants to raise taxes to fill a $16.8-million gap. The city council wants to take a different approach and borrow money. City council members did not respond to NPR's requests to discuss the dispute.
"I'm trying to do the best I can with the limited amount of funds that I have," Doherty says, "I want the employees to get paid. Our people work hard — our police and fire — I just don't have enough money and I can't print it in the basement."
After paying workers Friday, the city had only about $5,000 left in the bank. More money flowed into city accounts that day, but it was still not enough to pay the $1 million the city still owes to its nearly 400 employees.
Scranton's public workers received a few days' warning this was coming. John Judge, a firefighter and president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 60, typically receives about $1,500 every two weeks, after deductions. On Friday his check was less than $600 — before deductions.
"Don't know how I'm going to pay bills at home. I may be able to stave it off for a little while," Judge says. "[The] kids aren't going to be able to do certain activities this summer — maybe we're not going to be able to go on vacation."
The firefighters' union, along with the police and public works unions, have taken the city to court. Lackawanna County Judge Michael Barrasse issued an injunction, essentially agreeing with the unions that the city was breaking the law, but Doherty says he doesn't have another choice. Despite the injunction, he had the city send out paychecks based on minimum wage.
The unions plan to be back in court first thing Monday morning to ask the judge to hold Doherty in contempt.
There's been no love lost between Doherty and the public employee unions because of this battle; they've already spent the past decade in a legal dispute over pay that went all the way to the state supreme court. Both sides come to this latest battle with plenty of baggage and hard feelings. But with nearly 400 city workers receiving a fraction of the pay they typically get, pressure is building to resolve the issue soon.