HAZLETON, Pa. – Hazleton City Council voted down three mayoral vetoes on Tuesday night, leaving in place a 9.7% increase in property tax for 2021.
Last week, Mayor Jeff Cusat vetoed the budget because of an issue with police funding. He also vetoed the ordinance setting the property tax at 6.78 mills, up from 6.18. Cusat had sought a bigger increase in his draft budget.
Cusat said in his veto statement that cuts in the police budget could threaten eligibility for a federal Community Oriented Policing Services grant that would pay for four more officers.
Council unanimously struck down the budget and millage vetoes.
Council President James Perry said the police funding issue could be resolved with financial transfers, not a new budget. The city's goal is to boost the force to 46 officers from 42.
"It was easier for us to transfer the money than to re-amend stuff in the budget," he said during the Zoom meeting Tuesday.
Council then voted unanimously to override the millage veto. Cusat's draft budget would have raised the property tax by about a third, in part to compensate for his plan to eliminate the mercantile tax on city businesses. The final increase is just under 10%.
The vote to keep the mercantile/business privilege tax in 2021 passed 4-1, overriding Cusat's third veto. Councilman Jack Mundie cast the dissenting vote. Perry, Allison Barletta, Anthony Colombo and Lauren Sacco voted to override and keep the tax.
The mayor's veto statement last week said the tax puts the Luzerne County city at a disadvantage when it tries to recruit businesses to move in.
"Why would they come to the city when they could go a mile away and pay less taxes?" Cusat said at an earlier session, according to council's meeting minutes.
Perry agreed that the mercantile tax should be eliminated, but not yet.
"We cannot just get rid of it — we'll have a $455,000 hole in our budget," he said. "We do want to get rid of it for next year."
Perry said the funding gap can be filled by a revenue source that is more fair to all.
"We want to make the city as business-friendly as possible," Hazleton Solicitor Sean Logsdon said.
"Hopefully 2021 brings us better communication," Barletta said about the mayoral vetoes and the need for a special council meeting to set the 2021 budget.
Mundie inquired whether the city hall staff is functioning safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, and was told that the police and fire departments, as well as the administrative staff, are doing well.
In other business, Perry said the city's ending fund balance will grow over last year, with Hazleton "ending the year with a half million in cash."
After 10 months of pandemic-related disruption, he said seeing the balance grow from $394,000 to about $500,000 shows reflects Hazleton's future.
"We can move this city forward and have even better days ahead," Perry said.