By Lily Kuo
(Reuters) - Firefighters, police and other public workers in a Pennsylvania city saw their wages slashed to minimum wage rates on Friday, in a move by the cash-strapped city to balance its budget, city officials said.
Scranton's public workers would be paid $7.25 an hour "indefinitely" starting with Friday's paychecks as part of a plan initiated by the mayor, Chris Doherty.
Scranton, a city of about 76,000 in the northeast of the state, is the latest Pennsylvania city in serious financial trouble. The Scranton Times-Tribune recently reported the city faces a $16.8 million gap in the 2012 budget.
City leaders in the state's capital of Harrisburg, meanwhile, were prepared to seek bankruptcy protection but were thwarted last week by state legislators who extended a bankruptcy filing ban until November 30.
Both cities are part of a larger trend of municipalities struggling to balance their budgets. Stockton, California filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy on June 28, the largest U.S. city to do so.
The move by Doherty, a Democrat, slashed wages of about 390 public workers who had been earning between $19 to $36 an hour, according to a lawsuit. The mayor's wages as well as members of the City Council were also cut to minimum wage.
"What he did was give everyone minimum wage because that was what he was able to give as far as our finances are concerned," said Roseann Novembrino, Scranton's city controller.
Doherty's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Others said the move was sudden and would unfairly strain the finances for many workers who already live paycheck to paycheck.
"We're running into burning buildings, the police are fighting criminals and we're getting paid a rate of $7.25 an hour. It's ridiculous," said John Judge, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local Union No. 60, one of three unions who filed the lawsuit against Doherty and the city.
Doherty could be held in contempt of court for the wage cuts, the unions said, since a county court ruled on Friday that the reductions could not go into effect until a trial could be held.
The unions' lawsuit, filed on Monday, accuses the mayor of acting unilaterally and that the wage cut would have a "devastating impact" on employees, hurting their ability to maintain a decent standard of living.
Judge said the lawyer for the three unions was drafting a petition to hold Doherty in contempt of the injunction, to be filed in court on Monday.
Under Pennsylvania state law, the workers cannot strike, Judge said.
(Reporting by Lily Kuo; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)