No Luzerne County tax hike in 2018

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Luzerne County Courthouse -

Luzerne County real estate taxes won’t increase 2 percent in 2018.

Council members also voted Tuesday night to deny county Manager C. David Pedri’s requests for a new chief operating officer at $96,000 and a communications coordinator for $51,000.

Several council members have said a real estate tax hike is not warranted because the county’s debt repayments will decrease $5.3 million next year thanks to recent refinancing. The tax increase would have generated $2.1 million.

Council members are not scheduled to adopt the 2018 budget until Dec. 12, but they started voting on a lengthy series of budget amendments during Tuesday’s meeting.

For example, they eliminated $28,000 for a new election services associate and only partially granted the district attorney’s request for three assistant district attorney positions, deciding to fund one $43,000 full-timer and one $30,000 part-timer.

The council also bumped up revenue budget targets in several departments, adding a combined $25,500.

Council members did not keep a running tally on the net reduction of the cuts made Tuesday. Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck said she will prepare a report.

Pedri had told council he could accept holding off on the communications position, but he wanted a chief operating officer ranked above eight division heads to oversee special projects impacting multiple divisions.

Councilman Edward Brominski said he can’t support the chief operating position because it wasn’t included in the county’s home rule charter, which requires a manager and the eight division heads.

When council nixed the position, Pedri said he will take council’s decision as evidence of their confidence he is “doing a great job.”

Pedri said during a meeting break he is “thrilled” a tax hike was avoided due to the hard work of council and the administration.

“It is a great day that we are now able to pass those savings onto the Luzerne County taxpayer,” he said.

Pension solution

Another $11.6 million 2017 windfall from debt refinancing, litigation settlement, an unspent budget reserve and other sources also was on Tuesday’s agenda.

A council majority voted to use $8.6 million of the windfall to get caught up on employee pension fund subsidies — a problem that dates back years before the 2012 switch to home rule.

Pedri’s request to apply another $150,000 from the windfall to cover a correctional shower repair project was rejected by a council majority.

However, council on Tuesday approved a $627,000 contract with Panzitta Enterprises Inc., Wilkes-Barre, to complete the shower work at the prison and minimum offenders building on nearby Reichard Street. Council members said they will identify the additional funding needed to complete the project in 2018.

The showers have been leaking for years, causing damage and a safety concerns about broken tiles that could be dislodged and used as weapons, officials have said.

Council approved another administration request to spend $392,494 of the windfall to buy three large industrial snow plow and spreader trucks for the county’s 127 miles of roads. The trucks are from 2000 through 2004 and have rusting frames, the administration said.

Funding from the 2017 windfall that is not allocated for other purposes by the end of the year will be credited toward reducing the county’s $8 million deficit.

Energy project

After lengthy debate, council approved a $3.98 million contract with Pennsylvania-based McClure Company to complete nine energy projects, including conversion to energy efficient lighting, prison plumbing and laundry upgrades and new boilers.

The energy project is unusual because the county did not bid out the work. Instead, McClure completes the projects and provides a financial guarantee the county will hit specified energy reduction targets, officials said. Such guaranteed energy savings agreements are authorized by state law.

In this case, McClure guarantees the county $5 million in savings over 12 years on energy expenses, operational costs and avoided capital repairs. A McClure representative said his company must pay the difference or provide additional improvements at no cost to the county if it does not meet saving targets.

Council recently borrowed to fund the project.

Councilman Rick Williams voted against the project, saying he is uncomfortable with one company recommending, designing and completing the work.

“It’s very hard to support this approach,” Williams said.

Council members Stephan A. Urban and Kathy Dobash also expressed concerns, with Dobash saying the concept has an “improper slant to it.”

Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he contacted numerous school districts and other counties that had hired McClure to complete projects, and they all provided positive feedback. Some hired the company a second time for further work, Kelleher said.

Luzerne County Courthouse County Courthouse

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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

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