Buried below more than $400 million in debt, Luzerne County probably won’t be able to qualify for another loan for a very long time.
That makes it all the more important to do something smart with the final $16 million or so in past-borrowed funds, yet unspent, which county officials have designated for capital projects. This week, the debate over which projects deserve the dollars – Moon Lake Park repairs, road paving, a new records storage site and so on – has spurred a special meeting of county council Tuesday night and a laundry list of ideas.
We’ll add our two cents today to this multimillion-dollar discussion, knowing the final outcome is probably far from resolved and the “right” decision forever arguable.
Why not start by returning a sizable chunk of the cash, say $7 million, to whichever bank or agency supplied it? Shouldn’t the county’s top priority be to lighten the debt load?
If repayment isn’t an option, just hold it. Resist the urge to do anything significant until (a) time passes and the county’s fiscal condition further improves or (b) a once-in-a-generation opportunity arises, such as a state or federal project offering immediate economic benefits to the community and requiring matching local funds.
One small but immediate exception this year: Pay the $50,000 required to fix the courthouse parkade’s ticket system, enabling the county to revive this income stream. No visitor should balk at a reasonable parking fee.
If by next year the county’s financial footing improves, by all means, give the go-ahead for another relatively modest project that pays an instant dividend. Among the top contenders: a $1.1 million conversion of the county government’s phone system, allowing it to dump a patchwork of service contracts, and a $2 million purchase of a records storage facility, eliminating the need to lease space.
It seems folly to put even a dime toward rehabilitating county-owned Moon Lake Park, considering there’s no clear plan for operating its campground and other amenities. Officials bungled years ago by shuttering the park; vandals subsequently stripped it of pipes and electrical wiring, meaning a rehab would necessitate millions of dollars. The administration, meanwhile, estimates it would cost $300,000 per year to provide security at the Plymouth Township recreation area, and those funds aren’t in the county’s operating budget.
Someone wisely has suggested that capital funds not be used to restore a statue of Ellen Webster Palmer, the late-19th century social reformer who advocated on behalf of the area’s breaker boys. Instead, the marred statue is expected to be displayed in the courthouse, spotlighting the need for donations to restore it.
Perhaps Palmer’s image could serve as the centerpiece of a larger fundraising campaign for other courthouse fixes: elevator repairs, replacement of leak-damaged plaster and reconstruction of the parking lot.
Now that would be resourceful.