Pittston City's Home Rule Referendum was approved by voters by a 3 to 2 margin on Tuesday.
Highlights include consolidating the power of the mayor and city manager, raising the earned income tax by a half percent and adding a homestead exemption to property taxes which would benefit homeowners that live in the city.
My reaction is we're happy, but it's only the first step, said former mayor Michael Lombardo, a member of the study commission.
The ultimate goal, according to city officials, is to improve the neighborhoods.
Sixty-four percent of the voters approved the measure with 1,659 votes, and 36 percent of voters rejected the measure with 1,021, according to unofficial returns from Luzerne County. Joe Moskovitz, the city manager, said the goals of the Home Rule Study Commission were clear.
The issue has always been, how do we provide real estate tax relief for seniors and strengthen and revitalize our neighborhoods, Moskovitz said.
Last November, Pittston City voters approved the formation of a commission to study home rule for the city. Voters approved the results of that commission on Tuesday.
Enacting the Home Rule Charter basically allows elected city officials flexibility in governing not allowed by the current Third Class City Code, especially when it comes to taxation, Moskovitz said.
One of the primary components of the Home Rule is the city will soon be able to add and additional half percent to its current 1 percent Earned Income Tax.
The half percent will dramatically help the city, Lombardo said.
Of that original 1 percent, half goes to the Pittston Area School District. The new tariff could mean an additional $550,000 for the city.
But some of that extra cash will offset a planned Homestead Exemption, included in the charter. Officials, when discussing the charter with residents, had been using a 20-percent figure.
But state law will only allow a specific dollar amount, not a percentage.
What the administration is attempting to do is comply with the spirit of the general study committee's 20 percent recommendation, Moskovitz said.
After the exemption is factored into the budget, the city should net about $150,000 to $200,000 more a year because of the switch, he said.
Luzerne County has a similar $10,000 homestead tax break given to roughly 84,000 residential property owners. The homestead exemption, which was wrapped in with the county reassessment, knocked $10,000 off an assessment for county taxes only, not school or municipal ones.
The administration needs to make home ownership more palatable, Lombardo said. Less than 50 percent of the people that own property live in the city.
If you let property taxes go through the roof and the earned income tax through the roof, why would you want to live here? Lombardo said. We need to bring people into the city, not drive them out.
For city residents, the tax shift should be manageable.
It amounts to $5 a week for an average city worker, Moskovick.said. We feel those workers are in a better position than the seniors, living on a fixed income.
When discussing earned income taxes for 2011 and 2012, city officials don't have concrete numbers because Centax-Don Wilkinson Agency, the agency that had been collecting the tax, is now defunct.
Municipalities in Luzerne County and throughout the state have been struggling to pay bills due to significant delays in receiving taxes that were collected by Centax in 2012 and reports on the 2011 collection.
The city is moving from a 3rd Class City Code, with a weak mayor, strong council form of governing, to the Home Rule Code, with a strong mayor/manager structure.
Currently, the mayor has one vote on council and each council member are titular heads of departments of accounts and finance, public works, public safety and fire, buildings and grounds, and the mayor oversees the police department.
Home rule brings those departments under the mayor and city manager.
Despite it being a weak mayor form of government, the past several mayors have typically exercised a considerable amount of control.
Dating back to Mayor Bob Loftus and including Mayors Tom Walsh, Mike Lombardo and Joe Keating, all have all been strong forces in the city.
Home rule is just making it official, Moskovitz said.
The day-to-day operations of the city will now fall under the city manager, including personnel, purchasing and general administration. And the city manager will report directly to the mayor.
What we have is the mayor is the chief executive officer of the organization and the manager is the chief administrator, Moskovitz said.
But there is a significant checks-and-balances measure.
Council has the power of the purse, Moskovitz said.
The city controller, one of the two city row offices, will be eliminated when the next term expires, which is Dec. 31, 2018.
The next municipal election, the office will be on the ballot, Moskowitz said. This is not a power grab by any means.
The position will be replaced by an independent auditor, but the city treasurer will remain.
The Home Rule Study Commission will have its final meeting at 6 p.m. Monday night.
Members of the commission include Lombardo, current Mayor Jason Klush, Ginger Murphy, Art Bobbouine, Joe Chernouskas, Fred Stuccio and Ben Tielle Jr.
After Monday, they will become the Home Rule Transition Committee and are charged with drafting an administrative code, which includes a code of ethics, conflict of interest policy, personnel policy, procurement policy, competitive bidding process and a long range comprehensive plan.
Their work must be complete by Dec. 31, 2013.
Lombardo said the ultimate goal of Home Rule is to allow the city neighborhoods to flourish.
We need to attract younger people to the city, Lombardo said.
Lombardo said Main Street and the downtown is moving in the right direction.
Now we have to focus on the neighborhoods, he said. Sidewalks are in deplorable condition and houses are in disrepair.
He said Pittston has a low crime rate and said that will continue under Home Rule. We're not going to sacrifice police or emergency services.
Moving forward, Lombardo sees a bright future for Pittston.
What happened yesterday was a vote of confidence and trust in the administration, he said.
Home rule will give us more flexibility in helping bring the city back.
Pittston Home Rule
*Bob Casey, D: 2,921,798
Tom Smith, R: 2,430,995
U.S. Representative (17th District)
* Matt Cartwright, D: 158,422
Laureen Cummings, R: 103,319
State General Assembly (118th District)
*Mike Carroll, D: 16,462
Terrence O'Connor, R: 8,563
State General Assembly (120th District)
*Phyllis Mundy, D: 14,051
Aaron Kaufer, R: 11,002
* denotes winner