Luzerne County Manager Pedri still awaiting Penn Place air quality test

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | May 24th, 2016 10:19 pm

Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri said he’s anxiously awaiting an air quality test of the county’s Penn Place Building.

The test, ordered in response to employee complaints about mold and unsubstantiated health issues in the downtown Wilkes-Barre county office building, was not completed Tuesday as expected but should arrive Wednesday, he told the county council Tuesday.

“It keeps me up at night, and as soon as I get that information, we’ll make it available to everyone,” Pedri said.

Council members have inquired about talk that three workers at the building on the corner of Market Street and Pennsylvania Avenue have been diagnosed with Legionnaires’ Disease, including one who was hospitalized last weekend. However, a city health official said Monday his office hadn’t received notification of any confirmed cases of the serious respiratory illness as required by law. County officials also say they have no confirmation of such cases.

According to Pedri, Swoyersville-based JMSI Environmental Corp., which is completing the testing, was unable to release the report Tuesday because it was awaiting some of the 70 sample test results.

The issue is a “major concern” for the administration, Pedri said. County officials will immediately take appropriate steps to ensure employees are safe if the test identifies concerns, he said.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash asked Pedri if periodic cleaning or sanitizing of air units has been completed to “prevent any sort of build-up.”

Pedri said he must research that but noted the administration has replaced leaking windows and is planning the replacement of old carpeting.

Purchased by prior county commissioners in 1999, Penn Place houses some court staff, including probation, and numerous other county departments, including the controller’s, election, planning/zoning, drug and alcohol, purchasing, public defender’s, human resources and coroner’s offices.

The county assessor’s office also has completed its analysis of properties that received unwarranted county homestead tax breaks, Pedri announced Tuesday.

The office has been reviewing a list of thousands of questionable homestead breaks provided by the county controller’s office in July.

The conclusion: 1,761 of 9,461 properties were removed from the homestead rolls, Pedri said.

The list included 88 properties with out-of-county owners, 383 with owners outside of Pennsylvania and 148 businesses, he said.

The administration will present a proposed plan to recoup incorrect past breaks to the council on June 14, Pedri said. He expressed optimism the county recovery could be “in the six figures” factoring in the multiple years involved and the expense of mailing and processing bills.

Homestead participants saved $45 to $57 on their county real estate taxes annually from 2009 until the county-funded portion of the break was halted in 2015. Property owners continue to receive gambling-funded school tax breaks based on the applications accepted by the county assessor’s office.

The problem of multiple tax breaks surfaced after the March 2015 discovery that several past and present elected officials were receiving breaks on more than one property.

Pedri said a high-level clerk now reviews all new homestead requests, and the county has asked tax collectors and school district business managers to monitor recipients in their jurisdictions and report potential violations.

In other business, a council majority:

• Tabled voting on a controversial proposed $5 fee on an estimated 280,000 vehicles registered to county addresses. Several citizens urged the council to reject the fee, which would generate $1.4 million annually for county road and bridge maintenance and repairs.

• Introduced ordinances to place three proposed home rule charter amendments on the November general election ballot. The changes would lift a ban requiring county board/authority members to wait one year to run for county office, allow employees of companies with county contracts to serve on boards and authorities at the council’s discretion and require a majority of council votes — instead of four — to amend the county budget in the years following council elections.

A council majority must approve the questions at a future meeting for them to appear on the ballot.

Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to correct the number of vehicles registered to county addresses.

Pedri says results will be available to the public

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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