Luzerne County Councilman Stephen A. Urban made a surprise motion at Tuesday’s work session to spend $2 million in past-borrowed funds on improvements at county-owned Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township.
Against strong objections, a majority voted to advance his proposal to the full County Council for a vote at next week’s meeting.
Urban, a prior commissioner, needed only four other votes because council members Rick Morelli and Tim McGinley did not attend the work session. Council members Kathy Dobash, Eileen Sorokas, Edward Brominski and Stephen J. Urban supported the motion.
The funding would come from the estimated $18 million left from past borrowing. The administration has taken the position the remaining funding must be preserved because it’s unclear when the county will be in a position to borrow again. The county owes nearly $400 million and does not have an uninsured credit rating needed to refinance debt repayments at lower interest rates.
Councilman Jim Bobeck said a “shortsighted” move to spend money on Moon Lake without a concrete plan would repeat “the mistakes of the past.”
“That’s how we got in trouble,” Bobeck said, referring to the debt.
The county’s Recreational Facilities Advisory Board also recently urged county officials to negotiate a possible state takeover of the 650-acre park, saying several state officials and agencies have expressed a willingness to discuss the idea.
Moon Lake has been on the decline for years as budget cuts prompted officials to eliminate a full-time director and seasonal support staff and close the in-ground swimming pool and camping sites. County officials have estimated millions of dollars would be needed for repairs to the water and sewage treatment systems and other park infrastructure.
The park is open for passive activities that don’t require intensive county oversight, such as fishing, mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing.
Council members Harry Haas, Rick Williams and Linda McClosky Houck also opposed the motion, and unsuccessfully attempted to refer the matter to a council committee for further review.
Urban expressed skepticism the state will take over the complex and said it’s time for the county to “step up to the plate” and invest in Moon Lake. He maintained much of the capital funding has been spent on computer systems and other projects that do “nothing to benefit the average citizens of the county.”
County Manager Robert Lawton’s capital budget proposes spending a net $6.3 million in capital funding in 2014 and 2015. The work would cover courthouse repairs — including an elevator rehabilitation and reconstruction of the rear courthouse lot — and repairs to the Water Street parkade and several county-owned roads and bridges in addition to technology upgrades.
Lawton said he will spend the entire $18 million on Moon Lake if that’s what council wants, but ongoing maintenance and staffing costs must be considered. Budgetary issues prompted commissioners “to shut off the support to operate and maintain” the park before home rule, he said.
“We have that $18 million nest egg, and we can spend it all on Moon Lake. The question is how do we keep it going?” Lawton said, noting many county departments also have cited pressing needs for the funding.
Urban said the roughly $270,000 in natural gas recreation funding the county is expected to receive annually could fund Moon Lake staffing and upkeep.
Using all the natural gas funding for Moon Lake would prevent outside entities from accessing the money for matching funds on grants to expand trails or complete other recreational projects, Lawton said.
Lawton and several council members also said Urban’s proposal doesn’t state which $2 million in proposed capital projects will be defunded with spending on Moon Lake. Urban said he will review the proposed capital budget and make suggestions.
Urban complained about the state’s past acquisition of other county-owned recreation land, saying the public can’t access the sites because entrances are blocked off with no parking.
Public access to Moon Lake could be one of the requirements for a state takeover of Moon Lake, Williams said.
Dobash said she supports the motion because she believes Moon Lake has been “tossed aside” and has continued to deteriorate.
Calling Urban’s proposal “irresponsible,” Haas said the public is concerned about both Moon Lake and county debt, though he does not believe the public supports hasty spending of the limited remaining funds on the park.