Faced with dwindling funds for capital projects, Luzerne County Council members asked the administration Tuesday to start negotiating a potential state takeover of county-owned Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township.
The request came after the administration presented $20.67 million in suggested projects that exceeded the county’s remaining $16 million in capital funding. The list included $3 million for sewage, road, plumbing and electrical repairs at the 650-acre park.
The administration warned the $3 million wouldn’t fix Moon Lake buildings and campgrounds, and another $300,000 would be needed from the county’s strapped general fund operating budget annually for security.
Councilman Rick Williams questioned the logic of funding park infrastructure if a state takeover is possible. Several county representatives say state officials have expressed interest in the park because state recreation funding may be available to expand the state park inventory and restore camping and other basic amenities at Moon Lake.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck said negotiations should begin so council members know if a takeover is possible before they adopt a capital budget by Sept. 1. County Manager Robert Lawton said council approval would be necessary for the state to assume ownership.
Councilwoman Eileen Sorokas referenced a proposal that could be in the works to generate revenue for Moon Lake, saying she can’t divulge details but was informed the Wounded Warriors organization is interested in paying for camping rights at the park. Lawton said the millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs must be completed before camping can be offered to the public or any organization.
Lawton also said he spoke to a large unidentified local operation about selling naming rights to the park, and he was informed the county shouldn’t expect more than $5,000.
Council members did not settle on specific capital projects Tuesday because some had the impression the gathering was a work session, not a voting meeting. Council Chairman Rick Morelli said it was advertised as a meeting, but he agreed to hold off on voting until council meets on Aug. 26.
The capital projects will be discussed again at two committee meetings and a work session next month.
County Operational Services Division Head Tanis Manseau had estimated the requested capital projects would total around $14 million on Monday but added document scanning and bridge projects that boosted the total to $20.67 million.
The additions included $2 million to replace the Division Street Bridge bordering Hanover Township and Wilkes-Barre, which was recently demolished after its partial collapse. Manseau told council it would take at least five years for the state to fund the project, and the state may be unwilling to approve the project because the county owns another bridge that has passed inspection a block away.
Lawton told council members they are free to choose which projects to keep and omit. They also could hold off and leave most of the pot in the bank in case a need arises before the county is able to borrow again, he said. Officials predict it will be years before the county is in a position to borrow because more than $400 million is owed, and the county has no uninsured credit rating needed to refinance debt at lower interest rates.
The administration’s suggested options include $2.37 million to repair leak-damaged plaster and gilding inside the historic courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, $2 million to purchase a records storage facility, $1.45 million for repairs to the courthouse grounds and $1.1 million to convert the county to a voice-over IP phone system.
In other business Tuesday, council also asked the administration to publicly seek proposals from buyers interested in a former Hazleton bank building that was purchased for $700,500 by prior commissioners for a southern annex that never materialized.
Hazleton officials wanted the county to continue inherited plans to give the building to the city in exchange for its forgiveness of an up to $290,000 lien on another county property. The city wants to use the building for an arts center incorporated into downtown revitalization plans.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban, a prior commissioner, made a motion Tuesday to advance the city swap plans to the next council meeting, but the vote was tied, with no votes from Harry Haas, McClosky Houck, Sorokas, Williams and Jim Bobeck. Councilman Tim McGinley was absent.
Instead, the administration will quickly proceed with advertising the property in case others are interested, and council will be briefed on the responses before the Aug. 26 meeting. Council members praised the city’s proposal and urged city officials to respond to the county’s solicitation.
Some county and city officials expressed skepticism anyone else will submit a more beneficial proposal, but others said they don’t want to deviate from the county’s practice of publicly advertising real estate.
Williams said the county must provide a “level playing field” and not return to “the bad practices of the past” by shutting out competition.
“Let’s just implement good public policy,” he said.