Luzerne County proposes combining Wilkes-Barre magisterial offices

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | August 22nd, 2016 5:32 pm

Luzerne County would save around $60,000 annually by housing both Wilkes-Barre magisterial offices in the same building, according to a proposed lease agreement released Monday.

The administration wants to move District Judge Thomas Malloy’s court into a building at 100 Hazle St. currently occupied by District Judge Richard Cronauer.

The plan was initiated more than a year ago because Malloy’s current North Sherman Street office, which was occupied by Martin Kane before 2016, is the most expensive among the county’s 16 magisterial districts.

Malloy’s relocation is planned for Thursday and Friday if a county council majority approves a new lease Tuesday night with Freeman Realty Inc., which owns the two-story Hazle Street property.

Under the new lease, the county would pay Freeman Realty monthly rent ranging from $7,079 in the first year up to $7,279 in the fifth year.

The county was paying a total of $144,720 before — $3,187 per month to Freeman for Cronauer’s first-floor office and $8,873 to Bella Vista Associates Inc. for Malloy’s office.

The annual rent for the Hazle Street space will be $84,948, which is a savings of $59,772.

Bella Vista had been charging $7,887 per month but raised the monthly rent to $8,873 earlier this year because the county had terminated the lease but sought extensions while it sought state Supreme Court approval for the magisterial office co-location.

The county also must pay Bella Vista a $15,773 early termination penalty as compensation for interior modifications made at the owner’s expense to house a magisterial office there.

In comparison, the monthly rental payments for the other magisterial offices scattered throughout the county range from a low of $1,000 for those housed in municipal buildings to $52,223 for Joseph Zola’s space on East Broad Street in Hazleton, officials said.

According to the proposed new lease, the county will occupy 6,180 square feet on the first and second floors of the Hazle Street site in addition to 610 square feet of basement storage space.

Freeman Realty will cover the cost of renovations to add Malloy’s office and include utilities in the monthly rent.

After five years, the county will have the option to renew the lease for two additional two-year periods at a monthly amount of $7,379 in the sixth and seventh years and $7,479 in the eighth and ninth.

The co-location also will allow the two magisterial offices to share support staff and prevent the need for city police to visit two sites, although both magisterial offices must maintain separate courtrooms and identities, county Court Administrator Michael Shucosky said.

The state is providing funding for wiring, computer equipment and security enhancements at the Hazle Street property, he said.

The county administration did not follow the usual protocol of presenting the proposed lease at a council work session before the vote because the lease was not finalized until late last week, Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo told the council in an email.

Crocamo said “time is of the essence” because Malloy must be out of the Sherman Street property by Aug. 31. The administration gave Bella Vista a lease termination notice to avoid another month of rent, she said.

In other business Tuesday, the council will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on a proposal to collect interest and a 10-percent penalty on repayments from property owners flagged as having wrongly received more than one homestead tax break.

Property owners signed up for the homestead arrangement were permitted to save $45 to $57 on their county real estate taxes for their owner-occupied residence annually from 2009 until the county-funded break was halted in 2015.

The county recently billed 1,400 property owners a combined $345,344.

As of Monday, the county had received more than $24,265 in repayments. Around 70 property owners came forward with valid explanations, officials said.

If six of 11 council members approve the interest and penalty, an additional bill will be issued, officials said.

The Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. Pete G. Wilcox | Times Leader file photo

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.