WILKES-BARRE — They’ve heard it before and likely will hear it again as Tony George and Frank Sorick campaign for the mayor’s office.
For George, it’s his sloppy campaign finance reporting. For Sorick, it’s his delinquent property taxes. For both, it’s how those issues affect their abilities to run the city.
George, the Democratic candidate, and his Republican opponent Sorick, 42, will participate in the candidates’ forum Wednesday night presented by the Times Leader and King’s College in the school’s Burke Auditorium. The free event open to the public comes just under two weeks before the Nov. 3 general election.
A city councilman and former police chief George, 63, took responsibility for the reports he filed after the May 19 primary. He said he made the errors because he was working and campaigning at the same time and completed the reports on his own.
George hired an accounting firm to correct the mistakes and file amended reports. An investigation by Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing.
Another problem area could be with his campaign signs. Resident Bill Fleming of Oak Street said he’s filing a complaint with a district judge because the signs did not contain the required information of who paid for them.
“It’s not an issue. It would be if they were all like that,” George said.
George said he has more than 800 signs throughout the city and initially all of them were legal. The signs Fleming found did not have the proper information, but it was added later, George said.
His past mistakes don’t prove he’s incapable of handling a multi-million-dollar city budget, George said.
“I’m not going to do the finances in the city,” he said. Instead, he’ll leave that up to the experts as is the current practice at City Hall, he said.
He turned the tables and questioned whether Sorick’s tax problems disqualify him for the mayor’s job.
“He can’t even pay his taxes on time how could he do his city budget,” George asked.
Sorick owes $9,758 in taxes for five properties, according to the Northeast Revenue Service LLC data base. He doesn’t hide it and has addressed it before.
It’s come up again because of a campaign supporter of George’s, Sorick said.
“Like most people in Pennsylvania I am behind and I am on a payment plan,” Sorick responded. “I have never missed a payment,” he added.
Sorick, 42, a Realtor and president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association, explained how the problem developed, saying he and his family lived on Sullivan Street and had to move because “we couldn’t stand the hookers anymore.”
“When my opponent was chief of police, he didn’t care” about the hookers, prompting Sorick and his family to move to Waller Street, he said. “At least life is a little bit more pleasant,” he said.
But as part of the move, he refinanced to a blanket mortgage to cover multiple properties and later found out his escrow account was closed in the process, said Sorick. Unable to come up with the total payment, he entered into a payment plan and has been current since 2006.
The experience, though humbling, has made him vigilant when it comes to personal finances, he said, and that will continue if elected. “I will never squander taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.
2016 operating budget
Either George or Sorick would assume office in January with a budget from Mayor Tom Leighton. Last week Leighton proposed a $51.5 million balanced budget that has to be approved by city council by the end of the year.
If council does, the new mayor can revisit the budget, make revisions and submit it to council for approval.
George said his review of the proposed budget raised concerns about revenues. Leighton included $1 million in revenue from the sale of city-owned property, two and half times more than the $400,000 budgeted this year.
“I don’t think we even got the $400,000 this year,” George said.
Refinancing of debt payments accounted for $5.2 million of the more than $7 million in additional revenues proposed for next year.
“I think we’re $7 million in the hole before we even start,” George said.
Sorick approved of Leighton’s proposed refinancing to lower interest rates, but said the administration lacks a capital improvement budget and a plan to reduce the city’s $78 million debt.
The city has made the minimum monthly obligations to its pensions, funded by bonds that make up the debt, but without making a significant dent in the debt service, he pointed out. In the meantime the city continues the cycle of borrowing and refinancing, he said.
“Our city should not remain slaves to the banks,” Sorick said.
The candidates went their separate ways on leading the city.
George’s theme has been one of law and order, making the entire city safe with a tough approach to fighting crime.
“Here’s the problem, people are afraid to come downtown and afraid to come out of their houses,” he said. Fix the problem and more people and businesses will come downtown, he said.
Sorick called George’s law and order plan “all fluff, no substance.” He proposed increasing the staffing level of the police force to 90 officers. He said salary cuts and staff reduction in City Hall would enable him to put two officers on the street in his first day in office.
“Beyond just increasing numbers we need to empower our officers to do everything within their power,” he said. If an officer goes into a house or building and sees code violations, he or she should be able to act on them without having to wait for code enforcement to get there, Sorick said.
He credited Leighton with making improvements in the downtown and said it should expand outward.”Let’s eliminate blight in the neighborhoods,” he said.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLNews