Judges Hearing Case For Commuter Tax

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SCRANTON - A hearing Tuesday in Lackawanna County court is expected to help decide whether the city of Scranton can tax people who work in the city but live someplace else.

Lawyers for Scranton need to prove that the city has exhausted all other forms of revenue and that a tax on commuters is the only way to balance the budget.

The hearing in Lackawanna County court will continue with testimony Wednesday. It works a lot like a criminal trial would, there are lawyers for the city of Scranton and lawyers representing the commuters who would be affected by the tax.

Tuesday's testimony showed that this controversial tax isn't the only big question mark in Scranton's financial future.

Bill Jackowitz is not one of Scranton's 23,000 commuters. But, he sat in Lackawanna County court for several hours because he says the controversial tax doesn't only concern commuters. It concerns him too, over the financial health of the city he loves.

"We're talking about city finances, we're talking about a city of 70,000 people, and that shouldn't be based on hope and prayers and speculation. It should be based on fact," Jackowitz said.

Facts, and hard numbers, are what three judges are looking for in considering whether to allow Scranton to put a new earned income tax on people who work in the city but live outside.

To put it in perspective, city officials estimate commuters would pay about $180 a year, raising about $4 million annually for three years.

Supporters of the tax say it would solve the city's current cash problems, and that it's only fair to share the city's tax burden.

"As far as taxing our own residents, I think we've gone above and beyond doing that. I don't think continuing to place that burden on our city residents would be the right thing to do at this point in time," said Doug Miller of Scranton.

The judges need to decide if Scranton's exhausted all other possibilities for revenue and are following the state's recovery plan. An official from the Pennsylvania Economy League, which helped with that recovery plan, did admit on the stand that the commuter tax wouldn't solve all the city's problems. There are still a lot of what ifs in Scranton's upcoming budget.

"The recovery plan is designed to eliminate the 2012 response," said PEL employee Gerald Cross.

But, the judges warned council members and Scranton's business administrator Ryan McGowan that the financial distress of 2012 could repeat itself, commuter tax or not, since many of the numbers in the 2013 budget simply don't make sense.

Mayfield Borough mayor Al Chelik leads the opposition against the commuter tax.

"I think it's going our way, but you never know until it's all over," Chelik said.

Chelik took the stand Tuesday for the opposition, where he testified that the commuter tax is a perfect example of 'taxation without representation'.

Two more opposition witnesses are scheduled to testify Wednesday morning. A decision on the commuter tax is expected Wednesday afternoon.