Wilkes-Barre officials are intensifying efforts to round up funding to reconstruct Solomon Creek’s flood-control system to better protect an estimated 300 homes and businesses.
The project would add flood walls where there are none, redo deteriorating retaining walls and widen some sections of the creek, which also winds through Ashley and Hanover Township.
Legislators added Solomon Creek to the Wyoming Valley Levee project with fanfare in 2007, saying inclusion would allow the federal government to fund 75 percent of its $50 million to $60 million reconstruction.
But the project can’t advance to federal funding approval without a commitment to pay the 25 percent local share totalling at least $12.5 million, officials say.
City Councilman George Brown said he and other city officials recently met with Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton to see if the county would be willing to contribute.
Lawton said the county is still paying more than $2 million in debt annually toward the levee-raising and wrestling with its own financial struggles.
“We don’t have the money. I told the group the county will do anything to assist that does not cost money,” he said.
Chris Belleman, executive director of the county Flood Protection Authority that oversees the levee, said city officials indicated they may approach the authority board about funding.
Belleman said the city is free to make the request, but he does not believe the authority has the financial resources to assist. The authority relies on revenue from a fee on levee-protected properties because ongoing flood control expenses are no longer covered by the county’s strapped general-fund operating budget, he said.
The authority also will take on the expense of maintaining the Solomon Creek flood control system if the project is completed because it will become part of the Wyoming Valley Levee, Belleman said.
‘Big nut to crack’
“The big nut to crack is how Wilkes-Barre is going to fund the 25 percent,” Belleman said.
The “best hope” would be a coalition including Ashley and Hanover Township, he said. The state may agree to cover half of the local share, he said.
“Maybe they can cobble together several sponsors and obtain some grants,” Belleman said.
Brown said he has discussed the funding request with several state and federal legislators and is trying to schedule a meeting with them to bring the topic to the forefront. The need for the project isn’t questioned, he said.
“Everyone is in agreement something has to be done,” Brown said.
The creek is largely contained by retaining walls built through the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, in the 1930s.
“The walls are in terrible, terrible shape. There are very big holes in them,” Brown said.
In August 2011, dump trucks hauled numerous loads of dirt for a temporary levee to contain a stretch of the creek behind properties on Carlisle Street.
Brown said it’s “heartbreaking” for residents who must worry whenever there is “sizable rain.” The creek flooded in 1972, 1975, 1985, 1996, 2004 and June 2006, officials said when the federal funding was announced in 2007.
He worries a high-water event will cause major flooding beyond properties along the creek.
“I don’t know if people understand how bad this could be. It could be a disastrous situation,” Brown said.
City Mayor Tom Leighton also attended the meeting with Lawton but could not be reached for comment Monday.
Leighton has said county officials told him the county would provide the local share of the expense when the federal funding was announced.
Regional involvement in funding the solution is warranted because economic development in the Mountain Top area is contributing to the “negative impact below,” Leighton has said.
The watershed draining into Solomon Creek is 18.5 square miles, with the highest points around Penobscot Mountain in the Mountain Top area, county reports show.