Q&A: Wilkes-Barre Mayor Reflects On First 3 Years In Office
WILKES-BARRE — With three-quarters of his first term as city mayor behind him, Tony George believes he has fulfilled just about all of his campaign promises.
As he prepares a run for a second term as the city’s chief executive, the 67-year-old Democrat reviewed the goals he set before taking office and how he met them or failed to do so.
George believes the city has made “leaps and bounds from where it was in 2015,” and he also provided a “2018 Year in Review” that details progress in the past year.
Q. Your main concerns included making changes in city hall, with the possibility of eliminating city personnel and positions, and improving the city’s neighborhoods. How have you done (in respect to those goals)?
A. We’ve eliminated numerous positions. We’ve combined the deputy city administrator with the solicitor to make one (position) at savings of probably over $100,000 with the benefit package. We did that in many departments.
I said we’d clean up the neighborhoods. We started the “Taking It to the Streets Program,” which was (a) success.
… They did 5,606 investigations with the health department and rental inspections, they had 1,707 complaint-based citations filed last year, and they did 1,345 rental inspections. On top of that, we had 1,500 animal enforcement responses.
Q. Restoring the Mayor’s Help Line?
A. We did that and when (help line coordinator Carol Smith) retired, we gave those duties to our secretaries. And it works. We get numerous calls every day and we take care of it. If we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t help.
Q. You’ve been criticized for reinstating two positions former mayor Tom Leighton eliminated
— the mayor’s help line coordinator and police department mapping and analyzing coordinator — and creating a position for Joyce Morrash Zaykowski. Don’t the latter two moves conflict with your stated goals?
A. No. The crime mapping is a necessity. … As far as creating a position, under Leighton, he had a deputy director and an assistant deputy director of operations. (Zaykowski) took one of those jobs, I eliminated the deputy director job and now she’s doing both that job and the (Office of Economic and Community Development) director. Her salary is (about) $60,000. The person whose job she took was making $60,000 and the OCD director was making $95,000. That’s … a savings of almost $100,000, plus another $50,000 in benefits.
Q. Another priority was reviewing equipment for all city departments. What did you find?
A. In my first year, we bought 10 police cruisers because the fleet was almost null and void. We bought an ambulance, a couple plow trucks and a garbage packer. In fact, we’ll be getting another garbage packer this March. We’ve refurbished all the fleets.
Q. Forming a citizens advisory committee composed of city residents and businesses?
A. That, we haven’t done. But we’ve been more active with the citizens. They have formed their own committees and we’ve been responding to them
— the Rolling Mill Hill (Residents’) Association, the Heights association and the South Wilkes-Barre (Residents Association). We’ve been working with them. … This year, we’re going to go in the spring and the fall to the crime watch (and resident association meetings), bring the city employees there. We hear their complaints; sometimes we get a thank you for what we do.
Q. You talked about making Solomon Creek (flood wall reconstruction) a top priority. Are you satisfied with the progress?
A. I’m extremely satisfied.
… They just started on the second section, so we’re ahead of schedule. And the Washington Street Bridge is opened up for design this year, which wasn’t even on the list two years ago, so we moved it up considerably. … And we’re working with (Luzerne) County and Hanover (Twp. on) the Division Street Bridge.
Q. You talked about changing the strategy from reactive to proactive policing. During your administration, the police department has had problems (and there’s been a strained relationship) between the administration and the police union. How do you feel you’ve dealt with, first of all, the policing aspect and your goals for that, and secondly, your relationship with the police union and revamping the department?
A. There’s no question there were problems between the administration and the police union, but the goal was satisfied. (Former police chief Marcella Lendacky) started the hot spots, she improved the crime watch division and crime went down.
… I’m happy now that there’s less animosity between the administration and the police department.
Q. Instituting a clutter clean-up campaign?
A. We started with white goods, which didn’t go over too big; we only had several responses. Last year we did bulk items
— we charged $10 per item and limited it to two per household. We did pretty good; I think we had probably 7,000 responses for that, so we did help some people.
Q. Making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a city holiday at the request of the NAACP Wilkes-Barre chapter?
A. We closed city hall for the day, which was their main focus. Firemen changed to having MLK Day off, and next year, we’ll be in (negotiations) with the police (and Teamsters) unions (on the issue).
Q. Is there anything from your first three years that you’re particularly proud of or things you haven’t been able to do yet but plan to?
A. I like what’s going on with the city. Taking It to the Streets cleaned up the neighborhoods considerably, but we’re not done yet. We have a lot of blighted properties. … We’re working on (forming a land bank) with a couple other third class cities.… Blighted properties are a big concern of mine for the next four years, clean that up and make the city a better place to live. We did already, but we have to have the press and the image changed, which I’m trying to do now. … Berkshire Hathaway wouldn’t have moved another 700 jobs here into the city, you wouldn’t be filling up (luxury) apartments in the old bank building if it was still the same as it was. People see it’s getting better.
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