WILKES-BARRE — While neighboring counties received their gambling revenue allocations months ago to fund local projects, Luzerne County municipalities must wait until at least Sept. 9 to find out what local projects will receive money.
The state Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA) has about $11 million in tax revenue from Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs casino to allocate to the county, but it must select from among 79 proposed projects that total $45.5 million. Though the Luzerne County projects are expected to come up, it’s not certain they will be on the agenda.
Steven Kratz, spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said this week the agenda had not been finalized.
“It appears as though the governor has been putting kiboshes to granting these awards,” said state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, referring to three previous delays in deciding on the county’s grants, including the CFA’s cancellation of the July meeting.
He and other Democratic lawmakers, state Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, and state Sen. John Blake, D-Archbald, have speculated Gov. Tom Corbett requested the cancellation for political leverage.
“I’m implying he’s trying to squeeze votes,” Pashinski said.
Jay Pagni, Gov. Corbett’s press secretary, said the CFA is made up of representatives of the state House, state Senate and the Republican and Democratic parties. He said all four must agree unanimously on each grant.
“The CFA is bicameral and bipartisan,” Pagni said. “If Rep. Pashinski has concerns, I would direct him to his representative on the CFA for more information.”
Pagni said items have been pulled from CFA agendas because of the need to have unanimous support. He said Gov. Corbett is committed to working with all members of the CFA to get consensus on a list of projects to be moved forward.
Kratz said last month the meeting was canceled “to focus on other priorities.” He noted a new state budget had not been enacted and lawmakers had not passed a final fiscal code.
But Pashinski said the list of Luzerne County projects was finalized and the requests all graded by the CFA staff in the spring.
“Now it’s just a matter of all the parties coming together and giving final approval,” Pashinski said.
He said the longer the wait, the more it costs municipalities.
“Because of the delay, $10 million in projects will delayed,” the lawmaker said. “If it were allocated in May, they would have been started. That’s jobs, financial obligations to attorneys, maybe architectural firms. Every project is important to that municipality.”
He said there has never been a delay like this, for as long as he could recall.
At meetings earlier this year, the CFA approved the allocation of approximately $11.8 million in gaming funds to support 69 community and economic development projects in Monroe, Carbon, Lackawanna, Northampton, Pike and Wayne counties.
The counties receive revenues through the Mount Airy Casino Resort in Mount Pocono. In total, 16 projects in Monroe County were awarded nearly $3.8 million by the CFA. The other counties were awarded nearly $8 million for 53 projects.
The CFA is administered by a board of directors with three members of the governor’s cabinet and one representative from each of four legislative caucuses. “A supermajority is required to approve a project,” Kratz said. That means if there is one dissenting vote, a project is not approved. Kratz said that in some cases, the authority votes on blocks of projects.
Austin Burke, retired president of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, is one of the seven CFA members. Attempts to reach him for comment on the delay were unsuccessful.
Variety of projects
In 2013, 17 projects in Luzerne County received funding from a total allocation of $11.5 million. They included $562,500 to Pittston for downtown revitalization and streetscape improvements; $627,500 to Plymouth for Main Street development, and $500,000 to Nanticoke on behalf of Luzerne County Community College to relocate and expand its new Culinary Institute in the city’s downtown.
Wilkes-Barre was one of only two municipalities to score a grant each year the program has been in place. Plains Township — where the casino is located and which is guaranteed annual grants under the state gaming law — is the other.
Wilkes-Barre has received $9.857 million to fund numerous projects from purchasing a police cruiser and equipment for a single-stream recycling effort to upgrading the city’s surveillance cameras and establishing a facade improvement grant program.
The CFA is considering requests from Luzerne County municipalities on 79 proposed projects totaling $45.5 million. Among Wilkes-Barre’s requests this year are $3 million for renovations of the former Ramada Hotel on Public Square that has been purchased by King’s College; $1.53 million for track and field renovations at Kirby Park, and $1.5 million for upgrading the surveillance camera system network.
Since the first gaming grants were awarded in 2008, more than $73 million has been allocated to projects throughout Luzerne County, from $24,144 for a Nescopeck police cruiser to $12 million to help fund roadway work leading from Interstate 81 and state Route 315 into the sprawling CenterPoint East Commerce & Trade Park in Jenkins Township.
By law, 2 percent of money wagered in Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs slot machines is earmarked to be allocated to communities submitting grants each year. So far, the allocations have helped pay for municipal buildings, recycling centers, a library and other public projects.
Reporter Bill O’Boyle contributed to this report.