Look Ahead: What To Watch For As The Year Progresses
School construction, elections and paving projects are some of the plans on the horizon for Luzerne County.
Cosntruction of a new high school is set to start in Wilkes-Barre Area School District, while a new intermediate center will open in Dallas School District. Residents will vote for six council members on Luzerne County Council, while Wilkes-Barre residents will choose a mayor and five council members. Here’s a look at what’s coming up in 2019 throughout the region:
This year promises to be a busy and political one in Wilkes-Barre, as the four-year terms of all seven elected city officials expire January 2020, and several construction projects are imminent or already underway.
Voters in May will get to nominate their Democratic and Republican picks for mayor, five council members and controller.
Mayor Tony George and council Chairman Tony Brooks have already said they intend to run for reelection, but Council members Bill Barrett, Mike Belusko, Beth Gilbert and Mike Merritt, as well as Controller Darren Snyder, have made no official announcements.
No challengers have yet come forward.
The first phase of the Solomon Creek flood control project is expected to wrap up in the spring or early summer. Crews broke ground in October and a sizeable portion of the new flood wall is already erected. Work will continue as long as the weather permits.
Reconstruction of roads and sidewalks around the creek in the South Wilkes-Barre neighborhood will begin in the spring. A second phase of the project, which includes construction of a pump station, likely will begin this summer.
Work on the Division Street Bridge also is slated for this year, and reconstruction plans for the North Washington Street Bridge are being put together.
Streets slated for paving this year include:
• South Main, from Public Square to Ross Street.
• Northampton, from Washington Street to South Main Street.
• South Sherman, from Coal Street to Amber Lane and from Northampton Street to South Street.
• Mill, from the light at Scott Street to George Avenue.
• Mayock, from East Main Street to Scott Street.
Spruce Street and Weismann parks are also due for rehabilitation.
Contracts for three of the city’s four labor unions — firefighters, Department of Public Works employees and city hall workers — are expected to be finalized sometime this year. Contract negotiations with the police are expected to begin this year as well.
— STEVE MOCARSKY
The Wilkes-Barre Area School District plans to start building a new consolidated high school this spring.
The opening of construction bids is expected in the winter. The new high school will allow the consolidation of all three district high schools — Meyers, GAR and Coughlin — sometime during the 2021-22 school year.
But the district will merge the sports teams at the three high schools this fall due to declining student participation. The unified sports teams will have new team colors — black and Carolina blue — and a new nickname/mascot — Wolfpack.
The district plans to borrow up to $137.3 million to fund the construction of a new high school between Maffett and North Main streets in Plains Twp. The district bought the 78-acre site from Pagnotti Enterprises for $4.2 million.
The Dallas School District this year expects to finish building the new Dallas Intermediate School for grades three through five. The new school is expected to open at the start of the 2019-20 school year
The district plans to demolish Dallas Elementary School after the current school year, and when the new school opens in 2019, Wycallis Elementary School will be used for kindergarten and first and second grades. Wycallis and Dallas Elementary are on the same campus but have been for students from different neighborhoods.
School board positions will be up for election this year, and candidates can start circulating nominating petitions Feb. 19. To get on the May 21 primary election ballot, candidates must file petitions by March 12. The general election is Nov. 5.
— MICHAEL P. BUFFER
Several high-profile cases are expected to conclude in 2019, starting with a sentencing over a notorious drive-by shooting.
David “D-Rock” Nealy, 37, of Kingston, and Roberto “Ruthless” Battle, 29, of Brooklyn, New York, were convicted at trial last month of murdering Michael Onley, a popular disc jockey known as DJ Mo, in a drive-by shooting outside the now-closed Outsiders Bar at 650 S. Main St. on Oct. 13, 2013.
Prosecutors said Battle was angered after being kicked out of the club so he committed the shooting with Nealy behind the wheel. Both men face mandatory life in prison at sentencing Jan. 31.
That same week, Laflin arson suspect Preston Bonnett had been set to stand trial in a triple homicide case, but his lawyers recently requested a continuance. The case is now likely to be rescheduled for later in the year.
Bonnett, 28, is awaiting trial on murder and arson charges alleging he set fire to his ex-girlfriend’s house on Oct. 25, 2017, killing her three children: Erik Dupree, 16, Devon Major, 12, and Ezekiel Major, 7.
Prosecutors said Bonnett was angered after being kicked out of the family home the previous summer. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
In April, Plains Twp. resident Philip W. Finn Jr., 48, is slated to stand trial on federal charges over the firebombing at the Wilkes-Barre office of Luzerne County Children and Youth Services.
Prosecutors allege Finn, who blamed the agency for separating him from his daughter, threw three firebombs into the Children and Youth office on North Pennsylvania Avenue on March 6, 2017.
The charges also allege that Finn threatened two agency employees while referencing an assault rifle.
Jury selection in that case is set to begin April 30.
Another high-profile case scheduled to conclude this year is the Thanksgiving slaying of a 97-year-old Nanticoke woman who was stabbed with a screwdriver as she slept in her bed.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Anthony Spudis, 36, over the death of Gertrude Price, whose family found her bloodied body in her bed at 23 E. Grand St. in Nanticoke on Nov. 29, 2013.
Prosecutors allege Spudis went out to burglarize homes and entered Price’s home thinking no one was there. When he encountered Price, Spudis stabbed her with a screwdriver and beat her to death, then continued robbing the home, prosecutors say.
Spudis’ trial is set to begin May 28.
— JIM HALPIN
Six Luzerne County Council seats will be up for election in 2019 — a year in which council will face tough choices about how to pay for two multimillion-dollar equipment upgrades.
The council seats held by Eugene Kelleher, Tim McGinley, Robert Schnee, Stephen A. Urban and Jane Walsh Waitkus will be on the ballot for the May primary and the November municipal election. The currently vacant seat that Edward Brominski held prior to his resignation this month will also be on the ballot.
McGinley and Urban have served on county council since it was formed as part of the county’s home rule form of government, which took effect in 2012. McGinley is the current council chairman.
Council members are elected to four-year terms, with a limit of three consecutive terms, according to the county charter.
Council will decide this year whether to borrow money to pay for new, more secure voting machines and the upgrade of the county 911 communication system from analog to digital.
The voting machines would provide a “paper trail” for added voter security, to comply with a state mandate. County officials have estimated the new machines will cost about $4 million.
Council last month eliminated $1 million in proposed funding for the voting machines from the 2019 budget. That helped to avoid a property tax increase this year, but it leaves the county looking for ways to finance the upgrade.
The county will also likely need to borrow up to $20 million this year to pay for the 911 communication system upgrade. That needs to be completed by next year, when the manufacturer will stop supporting the current analog system, according to county officials.
County Manager David Pedri has promised to pursue grants and other potential funding sources for the project to minimize how much money the county will need to borrow.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis is up for re-election.
— ERIC MARK
An organization called Draw the Lines PA wants voters to play a larger role in the next redistricting process for congressional districts.
The group held a contest that collected about 300 entries for what a map could look like. Organizers will announce winners at a ceremony in February in Harrisburg.
Draw the Lines PA will also hold another contest that asks people to draw a map with 17 districts. Pennsylvania is expected to lose a seat in the House of Representatives after the 2020 U.S. Census.
State government could also make some announcements on the issue in 2019. Gov. Tom Wolf created a committee to examine the state’s redistricting process and recommend ways to improve it.
Nanticoke has a new mayor in Nicole Colatosti-Mackiewicz. Because she was a councilwoman before becoming mayor, council will have to find a replacement to complete the five-member group. Council will advertise the position, collect applications then vote on someone to fill the seat.
Starting August 2018, the cost of road salt went from $51 per ton to $74.29 per ton for Luzerne County municipalities buying through the state’s cooperative purchasing program.
The increase threatened to put a dent in municipal budgets, but there have been few snowstorms this winter.
The cooperative program locks buyers into a contract for at least 60 percent of their initial salt order, and they may purchase up to 140 percent at that rate.
If winter stays mild, municipal managers will be thankful the weather will allow them to buy at the low end of the contract and hope for lower prices in the future.
— BILL WELLOCK