Plans for valuable Luzerne County-owned tract debated

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com
Luzerne County Courthouse -

Luzerne County officials are still assessing what they will do with more than 400 acres of county-owned land in Butler Township.

In all, the county owns approximately 530 acres in the township because it operated the Kis-Lyn work camp for juvenile delinquents from 1912 to 1965.

However, 407 acres are available because the Keystone Job Corps Center operates a federally funded, residential educational and vocation program on 123 acres. Prior commissioners had approved a 50-year lease extension with the federal government for Keystone in 2001.

The county has been renting 145.6 acres of this land to family farms since the 1970s without written leases or competitive bidding, prompting the administration to publicly release a request for proposals opening up the leasing opportunity to any interested agricultural entities.

Proposals were due April 30, and county Manager C. David Pedri told council last week that only one entity submitted a proposal.

Councilman Robert Schnee, who sought last week’s update, said he does not believe anything should be done until the county obtains an appraisal, which the administration said should be completed soon. A prior township official had said the land was largely flat and would be ideal for residential development.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban said he may support negotiating the best farming lease possible to keep the land green.

Sale of house

County officials plan to sell a county-owned Hazle Township half-double to a family that has occupied the structure for decades, council members said last week.

Council’s real estate committee recommended a sale for $500 because the property has sustained fire damage and requires extensive repair. A descendant of the prior owners has said she was never informed the property was county-owned and had believed the property was not taxed due to a connection to nearby coal mining.

The house was deeded to the county 50 years ago after it did not sell at tax auctions, records show.

The issue came to light in June because the administration compiled a list of inherited properties that are not needed for government purposes and should be sold — a task that had been promised by past county officials for at least two decades.

Schnee said he drove by the property and does not believe the purchase should exceed $500, which is the price the county typically charges for properties that did not sell at tax sales.

County auction

An auction of unused, county-owned properties will be pushed back from November to early 2019, officials said.

Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo told the real estate committee more time is needed to set the starting bids for a significant number of properties assessed at more than $10,000.

For these properties, the fair market value minimum bid must be determined by council, the county assessor’s office and a certified broker or appraiser, officials said.

Budget update

As of Aug. 31, the county received $122.35 million of the $138.4 million in revenue budgeted for general operating expenses, county Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz told council last week.

The county spent $81.8 million, he said.

Prior-year spending was $65.8 million through the same time period.

Swetz said some major expenses previously paid later in the year are now addressed earlier, which he described as a “much better practice.” He pointed to the employee pension fund subsidy as an example, noting the county has paid $6.9 million, or 79 percent, to date, compared to nothing during the same period in 2017.

A $6 million domestic relations expense also was switched from another fund to the operating budget this year, he said.

“So while on paper it looks like there’s a huge increase, it’s actually timing and the way that we account for it differently than in the prior year,” he said.

Committees

Council Vice Chairman Eugene Kelleher said 66 applicants have been interviewed to serve on county boards, authorities and commissions this year, and more than half had never been involved in county boards.

Councilman Harry Haas said representatives of seven municipalities participated in a recent workshop explaining plans for a database of blighted properties that will be compiled by the county Blighted Property Review Committee. A second workshop will be scheduled, he said.

Luzerne County Courthouse
https://www.psdispatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/web1_luzernecountycourthouse.jpeg-6.jpgLuzerne County Courthouse

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

jandes@timesleader.com

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

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