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Monroeville taxpayers paying the price for personnel moves

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
Mayor Greg Erosenko quiets the audience. It was standing room only at Monroeville's Citizen's Night last night with over 150 residents packing the Council Chambers and spilling out into the lobby of the Municipal Building where they watched the proceedings on television. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express
Former Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole could be back on the job next week, this time as assistant chief. A court-ordered arbitrator ruled on Friday, November 1, 2013, that the municipality violated Cole’s contract when municipal manager Lynette McKinney demoted him “without cause” to sergeant in February.

Controversial personnel moves over the past year could cost Monroeville taxpayers nearly $200,000.

By midsummer, taxpayers will have paid $162,500 in severance pay, plus benefits, for two managers who quit during the past 14 months under pressure from a four-member council majority.

In addition to personnel costs, disagreements between the mayor, council and some employees have overshadowed discussions about how to reduce budget deficits and, residents say, tarnished the town's image.

“It's totally embarrassing to read in the paper about this foolishness,” Ann Bihary, a Monroeville resident for 52 years, said last week. “It's absolutely nuts.”

Others find the changes bewildering.

“I didn't even know we had a new manager until he resigned,” resident Mildred Praksti said.

Council appointed administrative assistant Lynette McKinney to the interim manager position in January when then manager Jeff Silka agreed to quit Jan. 30.

McKinney then demoted former police chief Doug Cole to sergeant, and Cole — who has declined to comment — then sued the municipality and five municipal officials.

Mayor Greg Erosenko then vetoed a proposed $35,000 raise for McKinney, saying the municipality spent too much on the position.

Erosenko suggested that officials sit down and discuss their differences.

“I offered the olive branch,” Erosenko said.

“Hopefully, everyone can start talking to each other again.”

Differences aside, there are budget challenges in Monroeville that extend further back than 2012.

Municipal expenses have surpassed revenue by an average of $4 million each year from 2002 to 2011, according to the 2013 budget.

Elected officials this year are expected to raise property taxes for the first time in more than 20 years.

Council is expected to approve a millage increase up to 0.547 mills, which would represent about $1.4 million in tax revenue.

That is in addition to a property value increase this year for residents, due to the 2012 Allegheny County reassessment.

“Monroeville is not unlike other municipalities in Pennsylvania,” said David Fiorenza, associate professor of economics at Villanova University near Philadelphia.

“Some of the problems that plague this town is a multiplier result of the last recession. Earned income tax, business privilege tax and mercantile tax all were affected by the last recession and did not grow as expenditures grew.”

To balance the 2013 budget, council increased the property tax rate and reduced the “rainy day” fund from 10 percent to 7.5 percent of the $27 million budget. Financial experts recommend keeping a savings fund of 7.5 to 15 percent of the budget.

Reducing the amount of money set aside puts Monroeville at risk of a reduced credit rating, Fiorenza said.

“The officials of Monroeville will need to monitor their budget and fund balance very carefully in 2013 to be sure there is not a downgrade in credit,” he said.

Officials and residents blamed several municipal departments — including the police department, which had the highest average salary in the state in 2010 — for overspending.

Councilman Bernhard Erb pointed out Monroeville residents pay for local services that neighboring municipalities shifted to the county.

Taxpayers pay for a local emergency dispatch center, animal control, refuse collection and a senior center, he noted. The dispatch center costs about $600,000 annually.

Monroeville also is one of few municipalities in Western Pennsylvania that provide lifetime health care and life insurance — in addition to a pension — for administrators and police officers hired before 2005, said former Finance Committee Chairman Dave Kucherer.

Though financial experts recommend adding $2 million annually to the account for other post-employment benefits, council has not contributed to the fund since 2011.

“Years ago, those were the kind of benefits included in collective bargaining agreements in lieu of pay,” said Mick McKamie, an attorney who specializes in municipal law.

“That may be where a lot of their trouble is.”

Police officers and administrators hired after 2005 receive about $1,000 for every year they're employed by the municipality. When they retire, the lump some can be put toward health insurance, Kucherer said.

Some residents have scolded council for playing politics instead of addressing the budget.

Former Manager Marshall Bond, who retired to Florida, said the political infighting is nothing new.

“It was never something I couldn't work with or work around,” Bond said.

He said the search for a manager could prove challenging.

“Anybody looking at a new position always considers what happened to the (last manager)” he said.

“Is it a good situation? No. Is it an impossible situation? No.”

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or klawson@tribweb.com.

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