City Finds State’s Answers Lacking On Financial Woes
WILKES-BARRE — A teleconference Friday with state officials on the city’s next steps after the state Department of Community and Economic Development refused to deem the city financially distressed left city officials with more questions than answers.
“We were looking for recommendations for things we hadn’t already done” to address the city’s financial problems, city Administrator Ted Wampole said late Friday afternoon. “We were disappointed (DCED officials) didn’t really provide any.”
“There were not a lot of definitive, concrete ideas,” he said.
DCED officials informed Mayor Tony George on Aug. 31 that his request for financially distressed status under the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, commonly referred to as Act 47, was denied. They believed the city’s financial situation could improve if officials continued working with a financial adviser in the state-sponsored Early Intervention Program.
George and Wampole had testified at an Aug. 1 hearing on the matter that the city was facing millions of dollars in projected deficits over the next few years, including a $3.5 million deficit this year.
Wampole said he, George, other members of the administration, city council President Tony Brooks, DCED officials and representatives of Public Financial Management — the financial advising company that has been working with the city to regain financial footing through DCED’s Early Intervention Program — all participated in Friday’s teleconference, Wampole said.
Wampole said city officials summarized “where we are in our budget process and what the city’s problems are,” and went over the 19 recommendations PFM made in the EIP Action Plan.
“We were concerned that in their (Aug. 31) call, DCED had said the city had not acted on many of the recommendations. That was inaccurate,” Wampole said.
Some of the recommendations made in 2017 included negotiating city-friendly deals with the two unions that had contracts expiring that year, exploring an increase in the earned income tax for residents and commuters, while also getting a better trash collection deal.
Longer term, the city needs to contemplate doing something with assets that cost money, such as the Hollenback Golf Course; or better utilizing assets that bring in money, like the city’s parking assets; and changing pension and other benefits for new hires.
The city has since raised fees at Hollenback, increased garbage bag fees and doubled hourly rates on parking meters. Some progress was made with some unions and are at a standstill with others.
Council blocked George’s initiative to sell a parking garage to a private entity, and the administration decided against adopting Luzerne County’s assessment figures, arguing that doing so would put a greater burden on homeowners while lifting it on commercial properties, Wampole noted.
He said the city could qualify for a $300,000 grant toward a third phase of an Early Intervention Program “to perhaps explore some things the city has not already explored.”
Wampole said DCED officials will schedule a public meeting with the full city council in the near future “to address recommendations for the city and possibly implement things” council might have objected to in the past, Wampole said.
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