Mayoral Candidates Differ On Issues Facing Wilkes-Barre
WILKES-BARRE — Nuisance properties, deteriorating infrastructure and neglected neighborhoods are among the chief complaints both mayoral candidates have heard from city residents this election season.
Mayor Tony George said he’s been making progress in addressing all three problems during his first four years in office, but George Brown, his challenger in Tuesday’s primary election, says his efforts are inadequate and questioned his administration’s competence.
George said one of the biggest accomplishments of his administration is securing funding for and starting work on the Solomon Creek flood wall project. The wall restoration was authorized in 1998 but never funded. A 40-foot section of wall collapsed in December 2016.
George said his administration worked closely with state Sen. John Yudichak and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski and even visited members of the Pennsylvania delegation in Washington, D.C., in efforts to get funding for the project. Funding was secured and work began last fall.
“We had a little glitch when we forgot to put the comment period in, so that’s going to knock us back about three or four weeks, which isn’t much because if you look at Coal Street Park, when they did that, it was like six months (delayed),” George said.
George also cited months-long delays with the Hotel Sterling demolition, the intermodal transportation center and downtown movie theater during prior administrations. “This is nothing new, stuff like that happens,” he said.
But Brown said the delay was more than “a glitch.”
“He hired an (Office of Community Development) director who had no prior experience in that field and, because of that, some very important steps were not followed in the Solomon Creek wall restoration plan. There was a delay because the steps were not followed,” Brown said.
“I will make sure that people are qualified to do the job they’re appointed to. My administration will be made up of professional people that know how to do the job and are willing to give the time and effort to do the job properly,” he said.
George also touted that an engineering study has begin on a project to replace the North Washington Street Bridge, which has been closed since 2013. “That wasn’t even on the 12-year list when I started, and we got it on the four-year list now,” George said.
George also noted that the city and Hanover Twp. are splitting the cost of a $90,000 engineering study on the Division Street Bridge, and a state grant to Luzerne County is covering cost of repairs, which are set to begin soon.
His administration also secured a $250,000 grant to rehabilitate the Strauss Lane Bridge, which has been closed for nearly a year, in the Goose Island section of the city, and work on that should start in a few months, he said.
Roads and potholes
George has dismissed Brown’s criticism that not enough roadwork is being done, saying city crews are performing as much maintenance and repair as funding allows.
Brown said the city “has to have major renovation. We have streets that are pothole-ridden. You have to … avoid those streets, and that’s terrible because the residents of Wilkes-Barre pay to have that service and they’re not getting that service.”
Brown said funding for repairs “may not be there now, the way that the city is being run,” but he feels certain it’s possible to improve city services and he plans to put together “a strategic plan” to make that happen.
“I think part of that strategic plan would be addressing the pothole situation in the city, where we look for (Community Development Block Grants) and liquid fuel grants, things like that, and working closely with the OCD director and making sure they have the appropriate skills and knowledge to apply for the grants,” Brown said.
He would also work with Yudichak and Pashinski to try and secure more grants. “I know it’s a big issue to address, but I’m ready for it, and creating a strategic plan, I believe we can do more than is being done now,” Brown said.
George also touted his “Taking It to the Streets” initiative — a weekly operation in which teams of building, health and rental inspectors dedicate a day to walk each neighborhood and look for violations of the city’s building and health code.
The operation is a supplement to Neighborhood Impact Team hits, which address specific nuisance properties. While the city will continue to address nuisance properties through tips from residents, George said the “neighborhood-by-neighborhood” saves time and energy as we tackle these properties.
George said the operation, which he initiated during his second year in office, is working based on a reduction in violations year over year.
In 2017, 355 Quality of Life tickets were issued. In 2018, the teams issued 264 tickets. And this spring, they issued 215 — a 39% reduction in violations in just two years.
But Brown said those efforts aren’t satisfying residents.
“We go in the neighborhoods and knock on doors and people are so upset with their neighborhoods and the lack of service they’re getting from the mayor’s office in addressing blighted properties,” Brown said.
“The neighborhoods are dirty in their opinion and they have to be corrected, and I agree with that because I’ve seen it firsthand,” he said.
Brown said there are many good landlords in the city, but there are also many “problematic landlords that don’t care about the buildings and may not even be in this area. Those are the ones we have to sit down and talk about how we’re going to fix that problem.”
And while George said he keeps lines of communication open with residents by attending crime watch meetings and via the Mayor’s Help Line, Brown criticized him for failing to attend council meetings to answer questions and address complaints.
Brown promised to attend all council work sessions and meetings and to move a 15-chair conference table into the mayor’s office if elected so he could host groups of residents, business owners, potential investors and the media to regularly answer their questions, listen to their ideas and discuss their concerns.
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This is the last of three stories focusing on Wilkes-Barre’s mayoral candidates’ views on issues facing the city. Today’s story focuses on blight, infrastructure and neighborhoods. The candidates’ views found in this story were shared at meetings with The Citizens’ Voice Editorial Board earlier this month and in other recent forums.