MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Here's one way to slash a city budget and fast - pay all city workers minimum wage: firefighters, police, everybody. That's what's happened in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Last week, the mayor unilaterally slashed pay, saying Scranton had run out of money. Minimum wage there is $7.25 an hour. A county judge has issued an injunction telling the city it must recognize the pay rates in union contracts, but the mayor is violating that court order.
NPR's Jeff Brady has the latest from Scranton.
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JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: A blue tractor with a powerful blade attached trims waist-high weeds in a vacant city lot. Behind the wheel, Roger Leonard, a heavy equipment operator for the city of Scranton. On Friday, his paycheck was about a third of its normal amount.
ROGER LEONARD: Bi-weekly, I believe we pulled home just about 900-and-some-odd dollars. And this check actually came back for $340.
BRADY: Scranton has had financial troubles for a couple of decades now. A troubling mix of declining population and economic hard times has stretched finances. The mayor and city council have been debating since last fall over how to fill a nearly $17 million budget gap.
Still, the decision to cut workers' pay came quickly. Leonard received just a few days' notice.
LEONARD: Yeah. I have two children and a wife and my wife's a stay-at-home mom, so I mean, if the savings gets drained, we won't be OK, but I'm hoping, before that happens, that they come to a resolution.
BRADY: Leonard is a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The president of his local lodge is also a city employee. Sam Vitris says there's a dispute between the city council and the mayor that has workers caught in the middle.
SAM VITRIS: You have an all-Democratic council and you have a Democratic mayor, so this is unusual. I mean, it's not Republican versus Democrat. This is like Scranton City Council versus the mayor.
BRADY: Today, neither the mayor nor members of the city council responded to NPR's request for an interview about their standoff. Mayor Chris Doherty did talk with NPR over the telephone on Friday. He was quick to lay blame for the wage cuts on members of the city council.
CHRISTOPHER DOHERTY: If they had gone with my budget, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The taxes would've been raised. The bills would have all been paid because we would have had a dedicated revenue stream.
BRADY: Doherty wanted to increase taxes to fill the budget gap. The council wanted to find other sources of revenue, such as payments from tax exempt nonprofits like local universities.
Without an agreement, the city faces a cash flow crisis. Last week, even after paying only minimum wage salaries, the city had just a little over $5,000 left. More money has since come in, but not nearly enough to pay the estimated $1 million still owed to workers.
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BRADY: In downtown Scranton, there are some construction projects and beautiful old buildings being redeveloped, but many of the storefronts have For Lease signs in the windows.
Colleen Maziarz has lived here her entire life.
COLLEEN MAZIARZ: It's getting worse and things need to be done and the mayor and the council really need to get together and they don't. They argue and they fight with each other and they just don't agree.
BRADY: That's the first complaint many residents here have. The second is they don't want higher property taxes. Pushing for that has made Mayor Doherty unpopular with residents like Bob Moschorak.
BOB MOSCHORAK: Put a violin in his hand and let him be like Nero and play the violin while Scranton burns down.
BRADY: Despite pointed criticism, the mayor and city council still appear to be locked in battle and the city's employees keep working at what are now minimum wage jobs. The unions representing them are threatening to file a contempt of court motion against the mayor to get their old salaries back.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.