Luzerne County Council members agreed Tuesday to delay voting on a long-term capital plan until next month so they have more time to hash out options for spending the county’s remaining $18 million in past-borrowed funds.
County Manager Robert Lawton gave council a fresh menu of potential capital projects during Tuesday’s meeting compiled by new county Operational Services Division Head Tanis Manseau.
Manseau suggested $11 million in repairs and renovations to county property, $4.5 million in bridge repairs and $12.7 million in paving of county roadways.
Council must prioritize because the county is saddled with more than $400 million in outstanding debt and won’t be in a position to borrow more for years.
Another $33 million would be needed to complete all infrastructure improvements and recreational enhancements at county-owned Moon Lake Park that were proposed in a master plan of the Plymouth Township complex several years ago, Manseau said.
Several council members appear to be backing away from a proposal to use $2 million of the bond funds to begin improvements at Moon Lake. Councilman Rick Williams, who wants to pursue a potential state takeover of the park instead of dipping into capital funds for park improvements, called for a vote on the $2 million to determine if the idea has majority support, but there were no seconds to the motion.
Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski, who initially embraced Councilman Stephen A. Urban’s idea for the $2 million Moon Lake investment, said he instead wants to pursue a proposal from Summit Business Group that would generate revenue from timbering at the park.
Council members had held off on a presentation from Summit in the past, saying they wanted to publicly seek proposals in case there were others interested in timbering. However, the county received no proposals after twice seeking a forestry expert to assess timbering options and assist with the search for companies.
Councilman Stephen J. Urban, who also had expressed support for the $2 million Moon Lake investment, said Tuesday he believes the county should earmark some of the remaining capital funds to technology improvements that will increase efficiency instead of recreational improvements.
Lawton said he agrees with that philosophy. His initial proposed capital plan includes $600,000 for a project that will eliminate the need to constantly buy new desktop computers by instead centralizing operating and application software on county servers. He also proposed spending about $1 million to convert the county to a voice-over IP system that would allow the county to cancel a patchwork of outside phone service contracts.
Manseau’s proposed projects include: $1 million to replace and upgrade boilers in the county’s steam plant, $1 million for a records storage facility, $300,000 for courthouse elevator replacement, $50,000 to analyze restoration needed inside the historic courthouse, $45,000 for fencing and a pedestrian safety crossing at the River Street courthouse parking lot, $38,000 to repair and restore the Ellen Webster Palmer statue and $6 million to convert the vacant former county juvenile detention center into a facility to house female inmates.
A Hanover Township resident urged council Tuesday to fund replacement of the Division Street Bridge bordering Hanover Township and Wilkes-Barre, which was recently demolished due to its partial collapse. Manseau did not include that project in his list of bridge replacements but said he will review the citizen’s concerns.
Council Chairman Rick Morelli also said he plans to hold a special meeting if necessary to determine whether council is willing to proceed with an inherited proposal to give Hazleton an unused, county-owned former bank building in exchange for the city’s forgiveness of a lien on another county property in the city.
City Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi attended Tuesday’s meeting urging council to proceed with the swap that had been initiated by prior commissioners. The city owns the properties on one side of the former bank and planned to purchase three properties on the other side to create a community arts center that includes green space, he said. The former bank could house the Hazleton Art League, which is located nearby and needs more room, he said.
However, county Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri has informed council members the prior administration never entered into formal agreements obligating them to proceed with the proposal.
The city lien that would be forgiven totals up to $290,000 but involves funds that must remain in the county community development business loan fund. If the county switches gears and sells the former bank building to someone else instead, the sales proceeds could replenish the capital projects fund.
Prior commissioners used $700,500 in borrowed funds that could have been spent on other capital projects to purchase the bank building for a southern annex that never materialized.
County officials are awaiting an appraisal on the bank building. Yannuzzi said he does not believe the building is worth $290,000.
Williams said he believes the county should publicly seek proposals so all interested parties have an option to purchase it, stressing the county has discretion to reject offers from prospective buyers that don’t present viable plans for the property.
Morelli said he’s concerned about delays and said an outside buyer could “spoil everything” the city has planned for downtown revitalization.