After nearly two months of review and debate, a Luzerne County Council majority voted Tuesday to approve a $138.4 million budget for 2018 with no tax hike.
Council also voted against two other proposals that would have allowed slot machines in truck stops and placed a question on the May primary ballot asking voters if they want to form a commission to consider altering the county’s customized home rule government structure implemented in 2012.
The new county budget funded raises of up to 2 percent for approximately 160 non-union workers.
County Manager C. David Pedri had requested $163,425 to provide up to 3 percent raises based on performance reviews.
Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley’s proposal to save $41,119 by providing funding for up to 2 percent was approved.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban criticized both options, saying council should not allocate funding for all 160 to receive raises because the manager said increases won’t be granted to all.
Also approved was Councilwoman Kathy Dobash’s proposal to provide an additional $25,000 to county public libraries. The county currently provides $875,000 annually.
A council majority rejected county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis’ request to restore $30,000 in funding for expert witnesses and investigations. Salavantis spoke at Tuesday’s session urging council to reconsider.
Also turned down:
• Urban’s proposal to cut funding for a $700,000 health insurance increase. He argued the administration should increase the 10 percent non-union employee insurance contribution to help cover rising costs.
• Dobash’s three proposals to reduce the millage in various increments.
The current tax rate, which will remain in effect next year, is 5.9754 mills, which equates to $597.54 on a property assessed at $100,000.
Some council members said they worried a reduction would hurt the county in 2019, when savings from debt refinancing would start to diminish.
The county’s debt repayments will decrease $5.3 million next year, to a total $20.76 million, due to the refinancing, which is why council was able to avoid a proposed 2 percent tax hike. Debt repayments will rise to $24.9 million in 2019 and back up to $26.1 million in 2020, remaining around that amount through 2028.
In many cases, council made cuts but placed the money in reserve, which will force the administration to publicly appear before council to request and justify the need for additional funds. As a result, next year’s budget reserve grew from $600,000 to $4.9 million.
Urban, Dobash, Edward Brominski and Eileen Sorokas voted against the budget.
Unless future county council members reverse course, slot machines won’t be permitted in county truck stops.
New state gambling expansion legislation gave counties with existing casinos the option to decide by Dec. 29 if they want to allow truck stops within their jurisdictions to operate up to five slot machines each.
Several council members voting against the option Tuesday cited complaints that state legislators did not include any provisions allowing the county to receive a portion of the revenue.
Instead, the state earmarked 10 percent of truck stop slot machine revenue for grants within counties. Since gaming grants have been offered, the county received only one for courthouse restoration this year.
Three representatives of video gaming companies and a local truck stop owner urged council to allow the machines, saying the move would benefit small businesses and generate revenue for the state and grants within the county.
The allowance of slot machines in an estimated four to seven truck stops that meet state eligibility requirements would not threaten the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino in Plains Township, they said.
But local attorney Murray Ufberg asked council members to reject machines in truck stops. Mohegan Sun employs approximately 1,600, pays 55 percent tax on its slot machine income and benefits the community, he said.
Urban and Sorokas were the lone supporters for allowing machines, with Urban saying he supports small businesses.
Counties that prohibit slot machines can later reverse their decision and allow them.
During a public hearing Tuesday, several citizens spoke for and against convening a seven-member study commission to assess the current home rule government structure. Some suggested council instead come up with specific proposed changes that could be placed on the ballot.
Only four of 11 council members — Brominski, Dobash, Sorokas and Urban — supported the study commission question.
Citizen Walter Griffith has said he will round up a team of volunteers to obtain 5,000 signatures to get the study commission question on the ballot.
Citizen Rick Morelli, a former councilman who also served on the commission that drafted the current home rule charter, told council during the hearing that he hears praise for the new government because it has decreased debt and is no longer a “dumping ground for political hires.”
Morelli pointed to council rejecting Pedri’s requests for two new administrative positions in the 2018 budget, which is evidence there is a check and balance over the manager, he said. He compared Pedri to a corporate CEO and council to a board of directors.
“It’s a business, and it’s working,” Morelli said.
Urban said significant changes are warranted, such as controller authority over outgoing bills and a decrease in the number of council members.
Councilman Harry Haas said other counties are “jealous” of Luzerne County’s structure. Councilman Robert Schnee said 11 members deciding matters is the “purest form of government” he ever encountered.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.