Thursday, July 10, 2014

COUNTY COUNCIL Race has 11 candidates for 5 seats

Winners will join 11-member board

October 26. 2013 10:46PM

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Luzerne County’s home rule charter created staggered terms so voters could choose either five or six council members every two years, and five seats will be filled in the Nov. 5 general election.
Eleven candidates are running: Republicans Paul DeFabo, Kathy Dobash, Sue Rossi, Harry Haas and Eugene Kelleher; Democrats Renee Ciaruffoli-Taffera, Michael Giamber, Richard “Kick” Heffron, Linda McClosky Houck and Eileen Sorokas; and Independent Rick Williams.
Voters are free to choose contenders from any political party.
The five council members elected in November will take office in January and serve with Edward Brominski, Jim Bobeck, Rick Morelli, Tim McGinley, Stephen J. Urban and Stephen A. Urban. Council members receive $8,000 annually.
Home rule assigned the duties previously handled by three elected commissioners to the part-time council and a full-time manager hired by council.
Approving a budget and tax rate and larger contracts, appointing members to outside county boards and authorities, hiring and evaluating the county manager and handling revisions to the ethics, personnel and administrative codes are among council’s responsibilities.
The 11 council candidates provided a snapshot of their qualifications and viewpoints on county issues during a recent forum sponsored by the Downtown Residents Association. Here’s a condensed report of their statements:
Dobash said she has more than 25 years of “work and life experience educating and helping people,” including work in a hospital, teaching, caring for her elderly mother and as a therapeutic staff support worker assisting autistic children. She currently works as a “problem solver for a major Fortune 500 company.”
She is a member of the American Legion Ladies’ Auxiliary and has volunteered for annual events and to assist at the county Emergency Management Agency during 2006 and 2011 flooding.
“With your help, we can return trust and respect to county government. We deserve it,” she said, crediting her father, a World War II veteran, for teaching her the importance of a strong work ethic.
Dobash pledged to oppose all tax increases and accused council members who are seeking re-election of failing to “hold the line on spending” and hold county Manager Robert Lawton accountable for overspending in 2012. The four incumbents are “too cozy” with the manager, she maintains.
She promised to obey the home rule charter and provide a check-and-balance on the county’s executive branch.
“The overspending must stop. The county taxes are high enough. We must live within our means and not burden the property owners more.”
She said she will seek new revenue by “thinking out of the box” and pushing for new construction and industry.
Dobash said she “worked hard to promote transparency in county government,” largely by seeking audio minutes of council meetings when written minutes were edited and by filing many Right-to-Know requests. Those efforts led to the county’s online posting of audio minutes and council emails, she said.
Kelleher worked in the financial services business after retiring from teaching after 35 years and said his experience in math and finance is an asset to the county.
In financial services, he advised clients in August 2007 to remove their money from the stock market and put it in a cash position, and all but one client followed that advice. The ones who did gained 30 percent instead of losing 40 percent, he said.
The county is “in trouble right now” with more than $400 million in debt, he said. The county faces three major spending hurdles in 2014: $27 million in debt repayments, $31 million to run the prison and a $9.4 million employee pension fund subsidy.
County pension subsidies were gradually put off during the commissioner form of government, which means most or all of the 2013 subsidy will be paid next year, he said. He estimates the fund lost about $4 million of “investment opportunity” in recent years due to delayed subsidies.
Kelleher supports home rule, largely because it keeps the elected politicians’ “hands out of hiring and firing.” The administration handles most personnel decisions. Council hires the county manager and council clerk and confirms or denies division head appointments.
As evidence he does not “walk in lockstep with the county manager,” Kelleher noted he voted against Lawton’s initial recommendation to hire a Colorado woman as judicial services and records division head because Kelleher believed interim appointee Joan Hoggarth, a local resident, was effectively performing the duties and should have an opportunity.
“It’s a situation where we work with and look to the manager for advice and disagree in a polite manner when we don’t agree with him,” he said.
Kelleher cited his experience working with people as a 39-year choir director, 2-year Little League commissioner, 5-year Little League coach, 7-year high school coach and a church volunteer. He referred to federal officials who “won’t budge” or communicate with each other.
“I think the key thing that you want to look for in the people you vote for up here are people who can work with others, people who can listen to others regardless of their point of view and hopefully form an opinion that is helpful to the county,” he said.
Haas told people when he was elected to the new council two years ago the switch to home rule would not be “one major wave of the wand” that would suddenly make “all our problems disappear.”
“Incrementally, this new home rule government is making slight-edge decisions that are taking us in the right direction,” he said.
Council has been implementing policies and efficiencies that will save millions of dollars down the road and allow the county to pay down inherited debt that eats up nearly 20 percent of the budget and “handicaps” council from making advancements in other areas, such as economic development, he said.
“It’s easy when you have a lot of money and when you have a lot of industry, but we don’t have either. What we do have is good people,” he said.
Haas traveled extensively but said he returned to the county a decade ago because he believes it is the “best place to live in America.”
He said he’s put in long hours — hours a night for the first few months of home rule — researching issues so he can justify his votes. Council isn’t divided on party lines, he said.
“It runs on people, and the skill of communicating with each other and dialoguing and being able to come together and talk peaceably and decently is so essential,” he said.
Haas said he and other council members have made decisions that have been unpopular and unacceptable to some, such as switching to in-house county tax collection instead of relying on elected collectors, which will save roughly $250,000 annually starting next year.
Council also consolidated bank accounts to reduce transaction fees and improve oversight and invested in a new financial software system that will allow managers to more quickly pinpoint areas of concern, he said.
Heffron, a lifelong county resident, wants to connect existing economic development organizations and compete for grants to attract jobs, saying he wishes his four children and 10 grandchildren could remain in the area.
“We need to start having this conversation. I haven’t seen this conversation on council for the first two years,” Heffron said, referring to economic development.
Council also must be more proactive tackling the debt, which costs county residents about $66,000 per day, weekends and holidays included, through 2027 under the current repayment schedule, he said.
“This is a very major point we need to look at and look at now,” he said. “It’s a tremendous amount, and if we don’t do something about it, this county will not get out of the hole.”
Heffron was a home rule charter drafter, served on the home rule transition committee and has attended many council meetings. He said county officials must figure out how to achieve balanced budgets and a surplus to win an uninsured credit rating needed to refinance the debt at lower interest rates.
The county pays 7.5-percent interest on most bonds, though some of those rates are locked in for several years, he said.
Heffron said many are “dismayed” at the proposed 8-percent tax hike for 2014, which would be the highest increase allowed by the charter. Other budget options must be explored, he said, criticizing “conflicting information” about the state of county finances from various county officials.
“How can you make any decisions when you get information like that? I just don’t hear the majority of council asking the right questions,” Heffron said.
McClosky Houck was born and raised in the county, and both she and her husband chose to settle here after leaving the area for college.
“We love this county. We raised four children here,” said the grandmother of three.
A Wyoming Valley West teacher with two master’s degrees, she said she ran for council because she is not a politician.
“I’m still not a politician,” she said. “I really hope that I’m a good public servant, and I have tried my hardest for the last two years to be a good public servant.”
Many would be “amazed” at the amount of time it takes to fully comprehend all issues that come before council, she said, adding that she is still willing to invest the time.
Debt is the biggest problem facing the county, she said, equating the tab to $11,000 a year for someone who makes $50,000 annually and owes $150,000 in credit card debt.
“That’s what it amounts to in simple practical terms for the average person, and it is an overwhelming situation to face, but the fact is we have to face it,” she said.
If home rule had not passed, the county would still be wrestling with debt, she said. Home rule is “exactly what government was intended to be,” with part-time council members who live and work among the people they represent and operations managed by professional staff instead of politicians, she said. Incremental changes have been made under home rule, but “there was no switch to flip so we could change everything instantly,” she said.
McClosky Houck pushed for a public application and interview process for citizens interested in serving on outside county boards and said attention to detail is her biggest strength. She said she scrutinizes policies and procedures to “make sure they make sense and are fair” and said council can overcome problems through “respectful interactions between council members.”
“I consider myself to be a voice of reason who represents average citizens on the council,” she said.
Williams, a registered Independent and architect working in downtown Wilkes-Barre for 36 years, said he has voted his conscience as an incumbent.
He said many improvements have been made during the first 22 months of home rule but said council can’t “just change government overnight.”
He pointed to the consolidation of bank accounts, a “new, open process” for selecting outside board members and increased focus on workforce standards, such as a 37.5-hour workweek and job descriptions, to create uniformity and ensure employees are monitored and supported in their work.
Williams said he is most excited working on measures impacting health, safety and economic development that will “pay off” years or decades from now.
Building a surplus over the next few years will help the county obtain a credit rating needed to refinance debt, he said. The county currently has a budgeted contingency of less than 1 percent, he said.
“It needs to be several percents, and we need to do that annually. It will take awhile to get there, but by planning, years down the road, we can begin to do that,” Williams said.
He also wants to spark more discussion about improving water quality and promoting the region.
“We could become a destination, much like the Adirondacks are, like Williamsburg is, like the Silicon Valley,” he said. “We can be a place where people not only want to live and work but also want to visit and move here.”
The Panama Canal expansion project will bring more freight north along the eastern seacoast in the next decade to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Newark, and Williams said Luzerne County must work with neighboring counties and the state to be included in infrastructure enhancements that could include freight and passenger rail.
“We can be part of a national passenger rail service traveling throughout the country much as you do in Europe or Japan,” he said. “It’s those kind of long-term visionary issues that we need to talk about and begin to sow the seeds now to do that.”
Sorokas was born and raised in the Wilkes-Barre area and is a retired union worker.
She and her husband are currently rebuilding a farm in Hunlock Township, raising farm animals and planting seasonal crops.
Sorokas is active in various community organization as a member of the Huber Breaker Society in Ashley, the Nanticoke active adult center and president of the AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary Post 189 in the Pittston area.
She has been involved in political government activities on the local, state and federal level, serving on the Democratic State Committee, the Democratic National Convention and participating in numerous political campaigns.
Sorokas said she is running “as a concerned citizen and taxpayer” to “be a voice for all residents.”
“I will bring back dignity and respect to all the Luzerne County residents,” she said.
She also vowed to lead the county “proactively forth for now and future generations.”
“My vision is to hear citizens say what a great place Luzerne County is to live, work and play,” she said.
She promised to strive for honest, responsive and dependable government — “one that will understand the needs of the public, including holding the line on taxes and watching how our tax dollars are being spent.”
“I will be accountable only to the residents of Luzerne County,” she said.
Giamber said many believe the county is “in the darkest days” with homicides, blight, gangs and drugs, but he said his meetings with people throughout the county have convinced him the “decency and the generosity of the people in this community is stronger than ever.”
“I see many positive changes, so much so that I believe we’re on the verge of a renaissance,” Giamber said, adding that he does not have “false hope or blind optimism.”
He said Pittston’s downtown “is being reborn again,” and citizens and crime watch groups are “banding together” with police to fight crime. He sees expanding business parks and transportation hubs and said municipalities are increasingly working together to share “resources and intellect.”
“Positive change is happening all around us, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.
Giamber said his 30 years of federal government experience, business management degree, extensive management training and work experience traveling abroad “prepared me for the challenges that lie ahead.”
County residents “took a giant step forward” approving the switch to home rule, but the new government has had “growing pains,” he said.
“It’s not enough to just have a plan for the future. We must also have the right people in office who understand the plan and have the capacity to take this new form of government from concept on paper to reality. I’m running for Luzerne County Council to do just that,” he said.
Giamber said he will provide “financial discipline” needed to obtain a credit rating in future years.
“We all would like to reduce the debt, but I ask you in the last two years, what has this council done to put us in a situation where we could possibly get a bond rating? I can tell you — very little, next to nothing.”
Ciaruffoli-Taffera said accountability is “the number one issue plaguing” county government, and she cited a sheriff lieutenant caught taking money, election “disasters,” a “bogus” budget and “near total disregard for the charter” as some examples.
“My campaign is about accountability — accountability for the way we hire, we treat employees, award contracts and manage your money,” she said.
Excuses for missing mandated home rule deadlines have “become the norm,” she said, pointing to the overdue county audit.
Ciaruffoli-Taffera said she and her late husband ran a successful business in Wilkes-Barre and raised four children, and she returned to college to obtain a degree later in life.
“My mindset has always been to take personal accountability for your actions,” she said. “My cause is better government. We need better government, not just more taxes.”
The area “has much to offer,” but officials must work harder to provide reasons people should locate here, such as affordable taxes, safer streets and top-notch educational systems, she said.
The county lost more than 124,000 residents since the height of its population, she said, adding that she would support local colleges and universities, push for commercial and residential growth and work with law enforcement officials “to get a handle on the exploding crime situation plaguing certain parts of our county.”
Ciaruffoli-Taffera said she has actively participated in the push for home rule and attended many county meetings since it’s been in effect.
“I have immersed myself into this new form of government. Now it is time to put my money where my mouth is and get elected,” she said. “Let me help fix what is broken and support that which is not.”
Rossi was born and raised in Luzerne County and said she and her husband of 35 years have two children and three grandchildren who live outside the area because they couldn’t find local jobs suiting their educational backgrounds.
“In this area we raise and put 25 or 24 year’s worth of effort to raise fine, young taxpaying citizens, and we throw away our most valuable asset,” she said. “If we don’t keep them here, what chance do we have at bringing new jobs and making any difference?”
A former municipal tax collector for 14 years, Rossi started a small business — Sue’s Notary — 25 years ago and said she learned “really quick” the financial responsibilities and need to project and prepare for them. Rossi said the county needs better financial planning to avoid cash shortages and budget crises.
In her current role as Butler Township auditor, Rossi said she successfully opposed a township supervisor’s push to receive healthcare costing $25,000 on his $2,500-a-year job. She informed residents and the media and collected petitions from many taxpayers who had no insurance themselves or could “barely afford” their coverage.
Rossi said she doesn’t buy into the argument of citizen apathy, saying people will respond if they are educated about problems.
She said she has witnessed taxpayers’ financial difficulties as a tax collector and at her business, which handles home and auto insurance.
“I’ve seen the people up front and close. I see them struggling to pay their taxes,” Rossi said.
Rossi said she would work with council members and listen to their viewpoints to develop solutions to debt and other county problems.
“I really do believe that this is probably going to be one of our most important chances to get try to make a difference with this home rule, get it back on the right track, so we don’t end up going down the wrong road like the previous government did,” she said.
DeFabo, a lifelong Wilkes-Barre resident, said his 20 years of experience operating businesses will provide valuable insight.
“I think I have a lot to bring to council,” DeFabo said.
Three commissioners under the prior government system often had trouble reaching consensus, and it’s “a lot tougher” with 11 council members, he said.
“That’s where I feel I could bring a lot to this council. A new voice a lot of times helps — a different perspective, a different way of doing things.”
DeFabo said he believes voters chose home rule because they wanted 11 individual thinkers, not voting blocs or groups aligned by political party.
“We have to work together. You have to work as a team,” he said. “I believe in that concept.”
He said he’s inspired by his two sons and two grandchildren, and they questioned why he is running. He told them people must get involved in government to have a voice and the “right to complain.”
“People who are willing to go out there and serve and put their name on the line I have a great deal of respect for,” he said.
Obtaining a credit rating is among his top priorities because it will save millions of dollars, he said.
“It’s going to take time, but we’ve got to work towards that,” he said.
He also supports hiring local residents for county jobs and wants to work with local educational institutions.
“My campaign slogan is the people first and foremost,” he said.

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