Luzerne County capital project requests exceeds available funding

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | September 21st, 2016 6:41 pm

With $6.5 million in proposed capital projects and only $4 million in past-borrowed funds left, Luzerne County officials must scale back their plans.

“Obviously we don’t have money to do every project listed, so we have to make some choices,” county Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley said during a recent discussion about capital plan options.

The administration’s capital plan, which covers 2017 through 2019, is automatically in effect because the county council did not adopt a new version before the annual Sept. 1 home rule charter deadline. However, council members have authority to amend the plan at any time and are expected to discuss changes at future meetings.

The council had opted to cut some projects to keep around $4 million in reserve last year, saying the county may not be in a position to borrow more to cover capital needs for many years. The county owes around $350 million from extensive past borrowing and carries a $9.4 million deficit.

County Councilman Rick Williams questioned continued investment in the county-owned Broad Street Exchange building in downtown Hazleton.

The county took ownership of the former department store so the county wouldn’t lose a $1.8 million community development loan when the building was in a tax auction several years ago. The administration tried to sell the property last year but did not receive any viable offers, county Manager C. David Pedri said.

The council had approved one of the Broad Street Exchange projects earlier this year — $230,000 to repair one of the building’s two elevators. The capital plan earmarks another $375,000 to replace the structure’s deteriorating rubber roof system, which is not attached to the deck insulation.

The building houses Luzerne County Community College, several county offices and some businesses, Pedri said.

Pedri said he will advertise the property again to see if anyone is interested in buying it before the county spends $600,000 on repairs.

Williams also flagged two proposed projects at the county-owned Wyoming Valley Airport in Forty Fort — the $100,000 replacement of an old fuel tank that’s in danger of leaking and $50,000 repair and restoration of a structurally deficient tower at the main airport terminal.

The administration agreed to his request to compile information on the income generated from the 110-acre facility, which is managed by a private operator.

“It’s great to have an airport like that in our community, but before we pay these, it would be good to understand the costs of the airport and the revenue,” Williams said.

County Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz said additional funds could be freed up if the council cancels previously authorized projects that have not begun.

An “obvious” option is $1 million that had been earmarked toward construction of a new Division Street Bridge over Solomon Creek, which will cost $2 million, Swetz said. The old bridge was demolished in 2014 after its partial collapse.

This project can’t proceed unless Wilkes-Barre officials come up with the remaining $1 million because county officials say the city is responsible for half of the span. Pedri said city Mayor Tony George informed him he is committed to obtaining the funding and believes the bridge is worthwhile. George could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Among the other projects in the administration’s $6.5 million roster: $1.8 million to scan old paper civil court records and wills; $1 million to resurface several county-owned roads; $850,000 toward a 911 project to upgrade public safety tower sites and radio communication; and $150,000 to upgrade the county website, which was designed more than a decade ago.

Luzerne County officials plan to seek buyers for the county-owned Broad Street Exchange building in downtown Hazleton in an attempt to avoid spending $600,000 in dwindling capital funds on elevator and roof repairs. County officials plan to seek buyers for the county-owned Broad Street Exchange building in downtown Hazleton in an attempt to avoid spending $600,000 in dwindling capital funds on elevator and roof repairs. File photo
County has $6.5M in proposals but only $4.5M in funds

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.