Last updated: April 24. 2014 12:02AM - 2570 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

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Luzerne County is once again seeking a building in the Wilkes-Barre area to purchase for record storage.

County officials have been mulling record storage options since former county Commissioner Tom Makowski proposed a county-owned central facility in 2001.

A state archive expert publicly warned county officials in 2010 their leased record storage facility in the Thomas C. Thomas building on Union Street was insufficient due to the structure’s temperature extremes, lack of security, leaks and fire hazards.

The county’s plans to buy a building on North Washington Street were halted at the end of 2011 because officials wanted to leave the decision up to the home rule administration.

The administration recently published a solicitation requesting prospective sites to purchase within 10 miles of the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. One proposal was submitted by Monday’s deadline, said county Purchasing Director Mark Zulkoski.

The lone proposal met the county’s minimum specifications, but details won’t be released until the administration reviews and discusses the document, he said. The solicitation said the county retains the right to reject proposals and re-advertise.

County Manager Robert Lawton has publicly vowed to identify a record storage solution this year.

“We’re looking for the best option we can find at a reasonable cost, but it’s imperative we improve the quality of storage as well as the space available,” Lawton said Wednesday.

County Council eventually will be briefed on options because the home rule charter requires council majority approval to purchase property, he said.

Past county commissioners had allocated $2 million in borrowed bond funding for a record facility, which is still reserved in the bank, he said.

A record improvement fund that comes from a fee on deeds recorded in the county also would help pay for the project, Lawton said.

This fund, established by law in 1998, contains about $28,300 and pays the $103,100 annual rent for the Thomas C. Thomas property.

The fund was depleted before home rule took effect in January 2012 because $1 million was paid to an outside consultant and others to organize records.

Corruption probe

A 2012 forensic audit concluded the fund paid Wayne, Pa.-based LRW Solutions Group, also known as Little Red Wagon, $856,000 more than authorized by its contract.

The U.S. Secret Service investigated the payments but never publicly disclosed its findings. County officials filed a court document preserving their right to sue LRW in 2012 but did not follow through with litigation.

Many payments to LRW had been authorized by former county Clerk of Courts Robert Reilly, who pleaded guilty as part of the federal corruption probe for lying to FBI agents questioning him about money he received from past county contractor Barton Weidlich.

Some of Weidlich’s payments for county work were out of the record fund and stayed hidden because he was paid through LRW, officials said.

County officials said Reilly didn’t obtain the required consent from fellow record improvement committee members for many LRW payments, but Reilly has said he didn’t obtain a public vote because other committee members failed to attend meetings — a claim some members denied.

LRW representative Eric Coombs has said his company did nothing inappropriate and completed all work authorized by Reilly.

Records being stored

County records stored at Thomas C. Thomas include wills and other estate files, marriage license applications, naturalization records and divorce decrees of interest to genealogists, officials have said. The county has copies of some of these records, but the originals can’t be destroyed.

The county’s recent solicitation seeks a facility containing about 20,000 net square feet of bulk warehouse space, with room to expand an additional 20,000 square feet if needed.

Among the other requirements for eligible properties:

• Compliance or the ability to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• Located on public transportation routes.

• A floor capable of sustaining at least 300 pounds per square foot.

• Paved parking for at least 10 vehicles with additional public parking within a reasonable walking distance.

• A central heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

• Construction of a non-combustible material with no wood framing.

• Outside the 100-year flood zone delineated by the federal government.

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