Last updated: February 19. 2013 6:25PM - 436 Views

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Sixteen Luzerne County residents peppered county Manager Robert Lawton with questions and observations for nearly four hours Tuesday night during the first manager public forum required by home rule.

Citizen Ed Gustitus praised the conversational atmosphere in the council meeting room at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, where dozens of matters were discussed.

You've had all the answers so far, said Gustitus.

I learned from folks here tonight. I'm smarter now than when I came in, Lawton said in closing, generating some applause.

Among the topics raised by citizens, along with Lawton's response:

• Why doesn't the county have eight division heads required by the home rule charter?

The positions weren't funded in this year's budget but were included in the proposed 2013 budget. The human resources director is working on proposed job descriptions, and the positions will be publicly advertised as soon as council approves the budget including them.

• Why are 17 vacant children and youth caseworker positions eliminated in the 2013 budget?

The department will still have 100 caseworkers after the cuts, and some of the eliminated positions have been vacant more than a year. Department caseworkers have caseloads below state targets. In comparison, similarly sized Northampton County has 50 caseworkers.

• What will the county do with the former Valley Crest Nursing Home in Plains Township and
the former juvenile detention center off River Street in Wilkes-Barre?

The county has no plans to reuse either structure, primarily because of limited capital funds. Lawton is interested in liquidating both and said he would entertain offers. Valley Crest includes 62.35 acres.

• Can the county force the district attorney to eliminate detectives?

The proposed budget calls for the defunding of one of 10 detective positions. Council controls how much money is allocated to the district attorney's office through the budget. After the budget is approved, the district attorney is ultimately free to reduce one expense to fund another as long as the overall budget allotment isn't exceeded.

• Is there wiggle room in the 2013 budget to provide the controller's office with funds to hire a certified public accountant or financial auditor to complete audits according to standards required by the home rule charter?

Yes, because council members may take some money from a contingency fund if they don't cut something else to compensate. The proposed budget's $315,000 contingency fund has been increased to about $365,000 because Lawton eliminated a budget and finance project manager position.

• What's being done to police the use of county-owned vehicles?

Local funeral home director Patrick Lehman said he has a photo of a county coroner's office employee using a county-owned vehicle at a private funeral home and cited other examples of misuse. He said the county vehicles should be labeled with coroner's office lettering.

Lawton asked for a copy of the photo and said he plans to implement an approval form for the use of any take-home vehicles so he knows what vehicles are out and can ensure the benefit is reported as taxable income for those workers.

• What's the manager's vision for the county's future?

Making the public confident in all branches of county government, in part through explaining how their money is spent and the return on the investment; focusing on outcomes that improve lives -- not just dispensing services; and creating a county government attractive to prospective employers.

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