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After Tax Hike Vote, Scranton Board Takes Surprise Vote For New Director

December 20, 2018

SCRANTON — A meeting that included a vote to raise property taxes by 3.6 percent ended with a surprise vote to appoint a new member to the Scranton School Board. In a 5-3 vote, the board appointed Gopal Patel, owner and operator of Subway restaurants, apartment buildings and a convenience store, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Paige Gebhardt Cognetti last week. The vote happened shortly before 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, after all but two audience members had left. The board did not put the vote on the agenda and did not give the public an opportunity to comment. Patel was not at the meeting. Instead of seeking new applicants and conducting new public interviews, the board voted to 5-3 to suspend its rules and break its policy by using the scores from the vacancy the board filled in November. Board President Barbara Dixon suggested going against policy to save time since interviews just happened last month for seat that went to Greg Popil. Directors Katie Gilmartin, Mark McAndrew and Tom Schuster voted against the idea, and ultimately, against Patel. McAndrew said other people may be interested for the seat now, and past applicants may not even want it anymore. Gilmartin said she felt uncomfortable voting without having applicants’ credentials in front of her. Under policy, the directors must interview and pick their top candidates. Six people tied for second place last month: Patel, Pedro Luis Anes, Gayle Thorpe Baar, Tom Borthwick, Sarah Cruz and Tom McIntyre. After drawing names, the majority voted against each applicant before Patel, whose name was drawn last. In other business: n City property owners will pay an additional 3.6 percent in school taxes next year. Faced with a $5.2 million deficit before the tax increase, the board will borrow about $3.7 million to balance the $166 million spending plan. The budget includes the addition of 12 special education teachers, 12 personal care aides and two crisis counselors. The 5-3 decision did not come easy Wednesday night, as frustrated directors blamed the state for inadequate and inequitable funding. Board members said city taxpayers should not be forced to make up what the state does not provide. Glimartin, McAndrew and Schuster voted against the tax increase, preferring to borrow enough to cover the entire deficit. PFM, the district’s state-appointed financial monitor, recommended raising taxes by 3.6 percent, or 4.6 mills. A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value. A homeowner with a property assessed at $10,000 will pay an additional $46 next year. With exceptions given to the district from the state under the Taxpayer Relief Act, the district could have increased taxes by as much as 7 percent. Instead, directors decided to keep the tax increase to the state-given maximum before the exceptions were granted. Director Bob Lesh questioned what kind of risks the district would take if it did not raise taxes and borrowed an even larger amount. The district has borrowed more than $30 million in the last few years to balance budgets. “Eventually the roosters are going to come home, and they are going to crow,” Lesh said. n Directors voted 4-3, with one abstention, to table a motion requesting the auditor general to conduct an audit of the information technology department. In his comprehensive audit last year, Eugene DePasquale found the department had a lack of controls. Casey abstained from the vote because he works in the auditor general’s office; McAndrew, Schuster and Gilmartin voted against tabling. The three have pushed for the external audit. Subsequently, the board approved paying the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit $2,500 a month to assist with information technology services, including an internal audit. With the former IT director retiring last year, the district has not had the staff to complete its own audit, Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., said. n Directors voted 7-1 on a tax abatement program for development in the city. To be competitive with other regions vying for new business, the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce has proposed a 10-year Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance program to spur development and job creation. The city of Scranton has already approved the LERTA program. Gilmartin voted against the resolution after requesting more time to review details. n The law firm Joyce, Carmody & Moran will act as labor counsel after a 5-3 vote, with Gilmartin, McAndrew and Schuster voting against the appointment. The minority had previously raised concerns about Larry Moran Jr.’s True Solutions Project, which donated to some sitting school directors. On Wednesday, Moran said he only organized True Solutions for a client and was not a trustee. The appointment is contingent on Moran providing a signed affidavit of his position. The law firm Sweet, Stevens, Katz & Williams, appointed solicitor last month, will also handle special education cases. n Rent for the annex of Whittier Elementary School will increase from $3,000 to $4,500 beginning July 1, with rent increasing an additional 3 percent every subsequent year. The district has leased the space from St. John Neumann Parish since 2014. n The following people received appointments: Ellen Knecht, social worker; Nicholas Riggi, maintenance; and Paul Stefani, intervention specialist. n Pat Laffey, who the board appointed to business manager in May, never received a salary adjustment from his position as assistant business manager. His salary will now go from $80,898 to $100,000, which is included in the budget and is still significantly lower than districts with similar demographics. The retired business manager made $123,860. Contact the writer: shofius@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9133; @hofiushallTT on Twitter

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