Reassessment A Top Issue In Lackawanna County Commissioners Races
With the primary election nine days away, reassessment is a top issue in the Lackawanna County commissioners races.
The two, two-person Democratic commissioner tickets differ somewhat on reassessing the values of the 101,000 parcels used to calculate property taxes.
The three Republican candidates oppose reassessment, fearing higher taxes.
In the May 21 primary election, the candidates for the two Democratic commissioner nominations are Commissioner Jerry Notarianni and his running mate, George Kelly, and Commissioner Patrick O’Malley and his running mate, Debi Domenick.
The candidates for two Republican nominations are Commissioner Laureen Cummings and Scott Twp. Supervisor Michael Giannetta and his running mate, Chris Chermak.
Voters can choose individual candidates and do not have to vote for both people on a ticket.
Each party’s two winners will face off in the Nov. 5 municipal election for three four-year seats. Commissioners earn $76,017 this year, but their salaries will rise 4% a year for four years starting in January.
The county last reassessed the value of all land in its boundaries in 1968, which has left values sharply out of whack compared with actual market values. Reassessment proponents say that means unfair taxation in many cases.
At a June 2016 commissioners meeting, Notarianni proposed the county begin reassessment, but O’Malley and Cummings blocked it.
A year later, O’Malley and Cummings voted to let voters decide on reassessment in a referendum, which Notarianni opposed. A lawsuit succeeded in getting the referendum results declared invalid, but the referendum stayed on the ballot and voters overwhelmingly rejected reassessment. In July, three Scranton homeowners sued to force reassessment, arguing current values are unfair. The suit is pending.
Experts say reassessment usually means taxes rise for about a third of property owners, decline for another third and stay about the same for the other third.
Domenick said that means a third of taxpayers will pay more and that’s unacceptable. Worried about higher taxes on senior citizens on fixed incomes, O’Malley said voters have spoken on reassessment.
Notarianni and Kelly also worry about senior citizens on fixed incomes and say they want to ensure reassessment doesn’t cost anyone their homes, but do not as emphatically rule it out.
Kelly said he would vote no for now because the matter requires more study. Notarianni wants to proceed with caution, too, but both think the county court likely will order reassessment.
Cummings fears higher property taxes will chase taxpayers out of homes. If someone feels unfairly taxed, they can appeal assessments annually, she said. Giannetta contends reassessment would hurt people who bought homes decades ago the most.
Last year, Chermak called reassessment long overdue. He denied flip-flopping and said talking to voters while campaigning convinced him to change his mind. Cummings once said she favors reassessment. At an April 2015 debate, Cummings said she favored it, but only after the county cuts property taxes.
Here is where the candidates stand on other key issues.
Taxes and budget
The county enjoyed a $27 million budget surplus at the end of 2018, with property taxes remaining the same since 2013. O’Malley and Cummings, who often vote as a majority, tout their no-tax-hike budgets with large surpluses and saving millions of dollars by reducing bond payments through refinancing.
“Lackawanna County government is in good financial shape. We’re efficient and effective,” O’Malley said.
Chermak and Giannetta said the surplus grows yearly, is too large and has left taxpayers paying too much. They plan to look into cutting the property tax or rebating a portion.
Cummings said she favors a tax cut, too. She portrayed herself as an advocate of controlling spending and pointed to her push to eliminate the county’s arts and culture tax and fund its projects through existing budget revenues. She also said she voted against 4% pay raises for elected county row officers and fought to slash Lackawanna County Prison employee overtime. O’Malley and Notarianni voted for the pay raises, pointing out the last increase was approved in 2003. Cummings favored a smaller increase.
Notarianni said Cummings and O’Malley shouldn’t take credit for a budget surplus that preceded them, but O’Malley said the surpluses began in 2012, during his first term.
Notarianni voted against the 2017, 2018 and 2019 budgets that didn’t raise taxes, citing, at different times, opposition to converting the Globe Store to the new county government center, the lack of reassessment funding and the lack of regular pension contributions. O’Malley, his former running mate, roundly criticized his opposition to budgets that don’t raise taxes.
Kelly also suggested slashing taxes because of the large surplus and called for seeking bids for “the majority of services” if possible.
Notarianni said the Globe Store conversion has overrun its budget with spending of more than $20 million so far, but O’Malley said the Globe’s expected final cost stands at $18.8 million, about what was expected.
Domenick defended the Globe project as a boon to downtown. An assistant public defender, she favors saving money by getting addicted inmates more treatment to prevent reoffending and a return to jail after their release.
Jobs and economic development
Chermak said his years running his family’s automobile dealership give him the knowledge necessary to attract new economic development. He and Giannetta mostly favor working closely with the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce to produce jobs and development. Giannetta views commissioners as promoters.
“They should be on the scale of probably the greatest showman of all time in our area, (the late former Scranton Mayor) Jim McNulty, where you’re out trying to sell the area, trying to sell the county,” he said
They would hire people with master’s degrees in business administration and former Wall Street professionals to run the county’s economic development department, they said.
Kelly, who ran that department from 2013 until February, said electing him and Notarianni, an auto parts sales company owner, will mean an administration experienced in dealing with developers. Kelly said he worked closely with the chamber and state government on development. He cited the creation of tax breaks, his oversight of a small-business borrowing program and grants to local groups to create a quality of life. He said matching companies’ workforce needs will be a top priority. Notarianni said he chose Kelly because of his economic development background.
Cummings said county government can only create the environment for development by keeping taxes low. She took credit for a workforce development program that works and one she improved. She encouraged development of a new app that teaches young students about possible careers.
O’Malley said the lack of tax hikes keeps more money in people’s pockets, benefitting the local economy. He touted his support for the county’s baseball stadium and county small-business loans that sustain 1,700 jobs. He said the county would continue to offer tax breaks to attract new businesses and end “the disconnect” between the county and chamber during Kelly’s tenure.
That contrasted with what O’Malley said when Kelly resigned from his county job.
“We’re really going to miss George,” O’Malley said. “He’s been part of a lot of really great things.”
Kelly and Notarianni said Kelly worked closely with the chamber and faulted Cummings and O’Malley for cutting economic development funding before restoring some.
Domenick suggested creating more tax breaks to take advantage of the county’s location near major highways.
Lackawanna County Prison
In the latest of a long series of scandals to rock the county jail, in February 2018, the state attorney general’s office charged seven current or former guards with having sex with female inmates. In April, the office charged a former female counselor with sexually assaulting two male inmates. On the 2018 charges, a jury found one former guard not guilty, and two pleaded no contest with one receiving a probationary sentence and the other facing the same. The other cases remain pending in county court.
The attorney general’s office seized numerous documents and computer equipment and continues its investigation. The county fought the seizure and ran up legal bills of about $692,000 as of the end of January.
Cummings, Notarianni and O’Malley expressed strong faith in the current prison administration led by Warden Tim Betti.
Cummings favors privatizing the jail, but said private companies have balked because the jail’s $16 million payroll prevents making a profit. She said she thinks the jail’s troubles are mostly in the past.
“When issues come, we will do the right thing,” she said.
Notarianni said the incidents that led to the latest trouble happened years ago and the county prison board is now “paying very close attention,” noting the county’s purchase of a full-body scanner to cut down on contraband.
He questioned the need for piling up the huge legal fees, saying he has faith in the attorney general’s office.
Kelly wants to add an independent board to oversee the jail.
Chermak and Giannetta called for ending patronage hiring of prison staff.
“We’re hiring friends, relatives, people who have no experience, people who shouldn’t be there,” Chermak said.
Giannetta said an “outside independent review” of jail operations can’t hurt.
O’Malley pointed out the county sought an investigation into criminal allegations against the guards. He dismissed the need for another oversight board because the prison board “is doing a fine job.” He defended the legal fees, saying the attorney general seized documents it didn’t need.
Domenick called for improved vetting and more training for current and prospective prison guards. She also wants the jail to offer more Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, perhaps in-house treatment for addictions, more mental health care and perhaps independent investigations of employee misbehavior.
The county contributed $600,000 to employee pension funds in 2016, but nothing in 2017 and 2018 before budgeting $500,000 this year. The years without contributions happened despite huge annual budget surpluses.
Notarianni and Kelly advocate for regular pension contributions to avoid the massive problems facing Scranton’s and the Scranton School District’s pension funds.
Chermak and Giannetta agree. Giannetta called the spotty contributions “a red flag.”
“You can’t rely on the (stock) market being up all the time,” he said.
Cummings said the county couldn’t contribute one year because of massive health insurance premium increases, but she and O’Malley said the pension fund remains healthy. O’Malley said the pension earned more than $14 million last year.
Domenick said annual payments aren’t necessary if investments are covering obligations and the county should follow the advice of its financial advisers.
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Family: Son, Dylan
Education: Dunmore High School, 1992; bachelor’s degree, business operations and information management with concentration in accounting, University of Scranton, 1996; law degree, Dickinson School of Law, 2000.
Experience: Owner, Domenick Law; clerk, Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas Vanaskie, 2000-01; lawyer, Margolis Edelstein, Scranton, 2001-03; lawyer, O’Donnell Law Offices, Wilkes-Barre, 2003-10; private practice lawyer, 2011-present.
Family: Wife, Sharon;
daughter, Sarah, Casey and Christina
Education: Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, Brooklyn, New York, 1976; bachelor’s degree, liberal arts, Cathedral College, 1980; master’s degree, finance and investment, Marywood University, 1999.
Experience: Consultant/owner, Davis-Kelly Advisors LLC; auditor/special projects coordinator, Emery Worldwide, Dunmore, 1986-90; controller, Diamond Glass Works Inc., Scranton, 1990-91; information center manager, National Securities Cleaning Corp., New York City, 1991-93; manager, information and billing services, GE Capital Services, 1993-96; vice president, product marketing and development, National Securities Cleaning Corp., New York City, 1996-01; managing partner, Kelly Financial Services, New York City/Dunmore, 2002-13; director of operations and technology, Milestone International Asset Management Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2004-06; senior manager, revenue assurance, fraud, cash processing and collections, RCN Inc., Wilkes-Barre, 2007-08; director, planning and economic development, Lackawanna County, 2013-19.
Family: Wife, Susan, daughter, Lara, and son, Francis
Education: Scranton Central High School, 1971; attended Wilkes College
Experience: Lackawanna County commissioner, 2016-present; owner, AIT Auto Parts, 1971-present; chairman, city Democratic Party, 1999-02; chairman, Lackawanna County Democratic Party, 2002-06; Lackawanna County register of wills, 1986-90; member, Lackawanna County Government Study Commission, 2013-14.
Family: Wife, Christine, sons, Patrick and Vincent
Education: West Scranton High School, 1988
Experience: Lackawanna County Commissioner, 2012-present; member, Scranton School Board, 1993-01 and 2007-11; Lackawanna County Prison guard, 1990-2005, and 2008-11; county assistant parks and recreation director, 2005-08; banquet manager, his family-owned Fiorelli Catering, Blakely, 2005-12.
Residence: Old Forge
Family: Daughters, Alicia, Melissa and Amanda; son, Johnathan
Education: Riverside Junior-Senior High School, 1982; certificate, licensed practical nurse, Lackawanna County Area Vocational-Technical School, 1986; two years, pre-nursing studies, Marywood College
Experience: Lackawanna County commissioner, 2016-present; owner, Lorimar Home Care, 1999-present; medical surgery LPN, Community Medical Center, 1987-88; charge nurse, Allied Services, 1988-93; Midvalley Home Health/Primary Home Health, 1993-96; assistant administrator, Old Forge Manor, Midvalley Manor, Kingston Manor and Harrison House and Scranton Manor, 1991-2005.
Family: Wife, Kasey, daughters, Christina and Emily; sons, Collin and Michael
Education: Abington Heights High School, 1981
Experience: Heating, ventilation, air conditioning technician, Chermak’s Heating and Cooling, Clarks Summit; Joseph Chermak Inc., South Abington Twp., 1981-2017, started as mechanic, worked in and later managed body shop, and later served business as general manager; volunteer firefighter, Clarks Summit Fire Company, since his teens; member, Elk Mountain Ski Patrol; former member, Clarks Summit Planning Commission.
Residence: Scott Twp.
Family: Wife, Tina, son, Michael, daughter, Tricia
Education: Scranton Preparatory School, 1979; bachelor’s degree, political science/history, University of Scranton, 1983; master’s degree, history, University of Scranton, 1983; law degree, Temple University, 1986
Experience: Attorney, trial division, Nationwide Insurance, Wilkes-Barre, 2010-present; law clerk, Lackawanna County Judge Chester T. Harhut, 1987-89; associate attorney, Murphy, Piazza & Genello, 1989-03; senior deputy attorney general, torts/litigation, 2003-2010; Scott Twp. supervisor, 1992-98, 2010-16 and 2018-present; member, Scott Twp. Sewer Authority, 2002-17; member, Lackawanna County Government Study Commission, 2013-14.