WILKES-BARRE — During a luncheon speech Wednesday, Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton was asked what is being done to restore confidence in county government.
“The voters in Luzerne County have some trust issues,” said Gloria Kijek, secretary/treasurer of the County Association of Boroughs and Townships, which hosted the discussion at Genetti Hotel & Conference Center. “What is your administration doing to build back that trust?”
Lawton, who started work as the first professional manager under home rule in February 2012, said the administration is “being as transparent as we possibly can.”
He referred association members to the manager’s section of the county website, www.luzernecounty.org, where he has posted reports on personnel actions, finances, budget transfers and copies of all contracts he has approved through the end of May.
“There’s just a ton of stuff up on there that wasn’t readily available before,” Lawton said.
He said spending and revenue reviews will become increasingly detailed and informative, and he is confident the county will end the year within budget. County officials kept property tax rates the same this year while absorbing union-mandated raises and benefits and a $2.8 million increase in debt repayments, he said.
All county job openings under his direction have been publicly advertised, Lawton said.
“My goal has been to get the best people for Luzerne County, wherever they may be from,” he said.
Bear Creek Village Mayor Walter Mitchell asked Lawton if the county seeks input from municipal officials when prioritizing repairs to county-owned roads and bridges that fall in their jurisdictions.
Lawton said the county owns 130 miles of roads and 300 bridges, and repairs are based on the condition and usage of the infrastructure. The county ended up with many of these roads and bridges decades ago, and Lawton told the audience he would be willing to deed them back to their home municipalities for $1.
“I won’t even ask you for the $1. I’ll pay the $1 myself,” Lawton said, generating laughs but no takers.
Larksville Councilman Joseph Gimble asked Lawton if the county can help municipalities reduce their health care costs.
Lawton said he does not believe the county could invite municipalities to participate in its plan because the county is self-insured. The county pays most claims out-of-pocket until stop-loss insurance kicks in for more expensive individual claims.
The county administration plans to research the pros and cons of switching to an outside health insurance provider for its 1,400 employees, Lawton said, promising to share his findings with municipal officials.
Municipalities may obtain better rates from insurance providers if they band together to purchase coverage as a group, he said.