Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri opened the annual “state of the county” address Tuesday with his proof of fiscal improvements.
The county’s outstanding debt, including interest, went from $420.87 million in 2012 to $294.4 million in 2017, he said.
Projections indicate the county ended 2017 with a $1 million surplus, and $4.4 million was added to the tax rolls through a new software program that pinpoints missed properties through aerial photography, he said.
Refinancing savings allowed the county to catch up on overdue employee pension fund subsidies, and money was available to pay budgeted expenses the past two Decembers, ending a pattern of year-end cash shortfalls, he said.
“It has been an incredibly long journey to get us here. Luzerne County is finally on solid ground,” Pedri said.
But he acknowledged the county still faces “major hurdles,” including paying down the remaining debt.
Debt repayments will rise from around $21 million to $25 million in 2019, and increase to $26 million in 2020, remaining around that amount through 2028.
A $20 million 911 radio communication system overhaul and new voting machines may be needed, he said.
Pushing for revenue will become increasingly important because the county is running out of “lottery tickets” to cash in, he said, citing millions in savings and receipts the county had generated from settling baseball franchise litigation, selling the former Valley Crest Nursing Home site and refinancing much of the debt, he said.
He set a 2018 goal of completing 75 percent of the 66 initiatives proposed in the county’s five-year financial recovery plan, which was prepared by consultant Public Financial Management in 2015. To date, 40 initiatives have been implemented, he said.
The ones planned for this year include increasing current-year real estate tax collection, selling or transferring ownership of unused county-owned parcels and seeking market-based revenue opportunities, such as allowing advertising on some county property.
Pedri also presented a series of 2017 developments in various departments, from free Wi-Fi in county buildings to the public defender’s progress reducing clients’ missed court appearances.
Some other examples in his report, which will be posted at www.luzernecounty.org:
• The Area Agency on Aging collaborated with Wilkes University’s pharmacy department to allow senior pharmacy students to visit consumers to ensure they are properly medicating.
• Mental Health and Developmental Services launched a program at the county prison providing some inmates with group and individual treatment that continues upon release to reduce recidivism.
• Human Services provided emergency shelter and housing assistance to 3,539 clients.
• A new sheriff/security department case management system has been implemented, allowing deputies instant access to data and providing the public with live status updates on properties in mortgage foreclosure sales.
• The prothonotary’s office participated in a stale case status update, which ended up clearing 4,050 cases, including 291 that had named the county as a defendant.
Following the presentation, county council voted to settle two outstanding lawsuits.
The first settlement of $95,000 was with Melissa Moser, who filed a negligence and personal injury action against the county in 2014 alleging her 14-year-old sustained permanent injuries when a concrete barrier allegedly fell on him while he was playing at the Seven Tubs Nature Area in Plains Township.
The county’s cost will be $10,000 under its deductible, attorneys said.
The second settlement, for $50,000, will close out a negligence and wrongful death action filed by the estate of Mark Lacey over a 2012 fatal motor vehicle crash that occurred when former county aging department caseworker Doreen Chacke was on her way home from a nursing home. The county portion of the settlement is $15,000, which will be paid by the county aging agency’s insurance carrier, the agenda said.
A council majority also appointed Robert Wanyo to the county Housing Authority in an authority tenant seat required by federal law.
Three council members — Linda McClosky Houck, Sheila Saidman and Edward Brominski — voted against the appointment after McClosky Houck expressed concerns the appointment opportunity was not widely advertised.
The appointee was recommended by the authority executive director, who reports to the authority board. After McClosky Houck and others questioned that process two weeks ago, advertisements were placed in authority buildings. No additional applicants surfaced for the unpaid seats.
McClosky Houck said the county received approximately 25 applicants the last time the seat was open and said mailings should have been sent to county Section 8 tenants in addition to those in authority buildings.
In other business, council Chairman Tim McGinley was appointed to a taxing body committee exploring a possible tax diversion program to fund highway infrastructure improvements needed to proceed with development at the former Valley Crest site in Plains Township.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.