Commuter Tax Hearing: Day Two

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SCRANTON — People who work in Scranton but live outside the city will have to wait a little longer to see if they’ll be taxed for the privilege.

A hearing to see if a commuter tax will help bail Scranton out of its financial hole wrapped up Wednesday, but the judges held off making a decision.

Judges will not make a decision on the controversial commuter tax until at least Friday, that’s to allow the city’s 2013 budget to be amended at City Council’s meeting Thursday night.

It’s that budget, and the uncertainty of it, that remained the focus of the court hearing Wednesday.

City Solicitor Paul Kelly spent much of the last two days defending city leaders’ financial decisions, that even the judges deemed ‘bad’, but Kelly left believing the case would go the city’s way.

“The city has met its burden of proving to the court that there is a glaring need for the commuter tax, I feel confident,” said Kelly.

Lawyers representing some commuters called witnesses in day two of the hearing. Gary Lewis, an accountant, testified Scranton could face a $25 million budget gap in 2013, with or without the commuter tax.

In his testimony, Lewis said “There`s a difference between budget numbers and actual revenue. I think that helps the city hide its deficit. The city has a nasty habit of putting revenue numbers on paper and not realizing them.”

In an interview with Newswatch 16, Lewis added, “Nobody wants to run on the basis that they raised taxes 100%, so they are trying to keep tax hikes as low as possible, and by doing that they’re trying to shift the burden onto the commuters.”

The opposition tried to prove that Scranton could have found other ways to make money before turning to commuters, and that the controversial tax won’t fix an already unreliable budget.

“It doesn’t solve our problems, it all goes back to city council and getting a good hard look at the budget and the budgeting process,” said Lee Morgan, a Scranton resident.

About 23,000 people would be affected by the commuter tax. City officials are budgeting to raise $4 million annually. That amounts to about $180 a year for commuters.

The judges delayed their decision until at least Friday, to allow the 2013 budget to become law. That budget, and its weaknesses, is what the opposition said won them the case.

“”I think even the city’s witnesses, the gist of their testimony, suggested to the judges that the budget numbers we’re talking about just aren’t reliable,” said attorney Armand Olivetti.

Another reason judges decided to keep the court record open until Friday is to give city officials a chance to come up with proof that the $4 million a year projection is accurate. The judges had their doubts.

Scranton’s Mayor Chris Doherty and City Council President Janet Evans did not attend either day of the hearing.