Clearing Luzerne County’s $8 million deficit is more pressing than boosting funds available for future capital projects, a county council majority decided Tuesday.
The county has $2.1 million left from one-time revenue windfalls, and Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley had proposed transferring $1.5 million into the capital projects fund.
Councilman Rick Williams urged his colleagues to leave the $2.1 million intact so it will be labeled as a 2017 surplus and credited toward deficit reduction. His argument prevailed, with support from five other council members: Harry Haas, Stephen A. Urban, Edward Brominski, Kathy Dobash and Linda McClosky Houck.
The county can’t create a permanent reserve with actual money in it until the deficit is paid off, Williams said. A reserve would impress credit rating agencies and provide funds that could be temporarily tapped, eliminating the need for an annual tax anticipation loan, he said.
Dobash said she wants to continue progress paying down the deficit, noting council was not warned before the deficit had ballooned to $16.9 million in 2014.
Urban said he was uncomfortable providing an additional $1.5 million for unknown projects.
McGinley countered that council has authority to approve and amend projects in the capital plan.
The 2018 budget sets aside approximately $4 million that is not earmarked for specific expenditures, Urban replied. Council has power to move some of those funds for capital projects if a need arises, he noted.
McGinley questioned the wisdom of allowing the capital fund to “go below $1 million.” Four colleagues agreed with his position: Eugene Kelleher, Robert Schnee, Eileen Sorokas and Jane Walsh Waitkus.
Because the capital transfer failed, the deficit is expected to shrink to $5.88 million. The final tally won’t be known until the 2017 audit is completed next year.
A county committee tasked with compiling a blighted property database is now officially at a standstill.
Haas and McClosky Houck were the lone supporters of Haas’ proposal allowing the county to help provide administrative and legal assistance to the committee.
Council’s 2016 ordinance creating the committee said the county Redevelopment Authority would provide the administrative and legal help. Instead, the authority, citing staffing issues, agreed to provide the county with $15,000 in reimbursement in 2018 for the services of the county council clerk, an assistant county solicitor and other expenses.
Several council members said they don’t believe $15,000 will be enough.
Citizen Brian Shiner, who was credited with discovering the ordinance wording conflict, said Tuesday the county should not provide assistance because the law authorized such committees to help redevelopment authorities address blight.
“This is their tool, not ours,” Shiner told council.
George Prehatin, a county planning commission member serving on the blight committee, told council that alternatives should be presented because the committee is performing a needed service and should not “fade away.”
A meeting between the committee and authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly to discuss funding options was suggested by several council members.
Williams, Dobash and Sorokas offered parting comments because Tuesday was their last meeting. The three did not seek re-election. Their seats will be filled by Chris Perry, Sheila Saidman and Matthew Vough.
A council member since the county’s January 2012 switch to home rule, Williams said the new government has made strides and increased transparency. Council members, present and future, should continue focusing on regional and long-term improvements in the area, he advised.
“Without that, we won’t be in a better place,” he said.
Dobash, who served since January 2014, said changes are still warranted under home rule, including more timely information from the administration to council and increased controller involvement in overall finance monitoring. She asserted cronyism and nepotism are still present in county government.
Sorokas said she is both sad and happy about leaving and hopes she helped to make the county a better place to live, work and play. A councilwoman since January 2014, she urged incoming council members to be independent.
Several colleagues said they will be missed.
Urban said Williams’ frequent questions often made issues more clear for other council members. Dobash and Sorokas represented the “working people,” he said.
Haas said Sorokas was always pleasant. He occasionally “tangled” with Dobash but said she made him think. Williams provided a “grand vision” and “keen intellect,” Haas said.
Schnee disagreed with Dobash and Sorokas at times, but he never doubted their views “came from their heart” without malice.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.