Luzerne County 2018 Year In Review

December 24, 2018

Luzerne County’s courthouse got a makeover early in 2018, and so did its governing body.

The year ended with good news for county property owners, as the county’s property tax rate did not increase in the 2019 budget.

In between, county council adopted a controversial vehicle registration fee and extended the contract of the county manager.

An inmate suffered a medical incident at the county jail and died days later at a hospital. Authorities said jail employees did nothing wrong, but the dead man’s family does not agree.

A controversy involving the county election director and a county vendor drew the attention of the state auditor general, who launched one of two ongoing investigations into the matter.

Courthouse renovation

A grand reopening celebration on May 3 marked the end of a months-long $2.2 million project to repair and refurbish the courthouse on North River Street, which opened in 1909.

Crews from Connecticut-based restoration experts John Canning Co. fixed falling plaster, restored old murals around the building and installed an LED lighting system that made the dome of the courthouse rotunda shine.

The workers carefully removed layers of mold, cigarette smoke and dust that had accumulated over more than a century. The project came in on time and on budget, according to county Manager David Pedri.

New leadership on council

Three new county council members — Chris Perry, Sheila Saidman and Matthew Vough — took office in January.

The council elected Tim McGinley as its chairperson. He replaced Linda McClosky Houck, who emerged during the year as an outspoken critic of some of Pedri’s actions, including outsourcing the county payroll.

Council in May approved a $5 registration surcharge for all vehicles registered in Luzerne County. Council made its approval contingent on promised matching funds from the state Department of Transportation for fee revenue devoted to bridge repair. The fee will take effect in early 2019, Pedri said.

In September, council approved a four-year contact extension for Pedri, that includes a raise and incentive clauses.

County jail death

Shaheen Mackey, 41, of Berwick, suffered a medical episode in a cell at Luzerne County Correctional Facility on June 6. Mackey, who had been sent to county jail that day for an alleged PFA violation, was restrained by correctional officers during the throes of an apparent violent seizure.

Mackey was taken to Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, where he died June 8. His family members said he had been effectively beaten to death, pointing to his bruised and battered body.

The county coroner’s office ruled that Mackey died of natural causes. Following an investigation, the county district attorney’s office cleared correctional officers of any wrongdoing in connection with Mackey’s death.

An attorney for the Mackey family said he plans to file a lawsuit.

Election ‘junket’ controversy

Outrage grew quickly earlier this month when media reports revealed that county election director Marisa Crispell served on the advisory board of county vendor Election Systems & Software and traveled to meetings for which ES&S paid her expenses last year.

The company supplied the voting machines the county has used since 2006, as well as an electronic poll book system the county purchased this year for about $325,000.

Crispell said she cleared the trips — one to Las Vegas, one to Nebraska — with county Director of Administrative Services David Parsnik and county election board solicitor Michael Butera. She resigned from the advisory board before the county sought proposals from vendors for the electronic poll books, she said.

County council members blasted Crispell for not disclosing her connection to ES&S before council voted on the poll book purchase, in April.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale described the Las Vegas trip as a “junket” and called Crispell’s decision to attend it a “disgrace.” He launched a state-wide investigation into how counties acquire voting equipment.

Luzerne County hired the Harrisburg law firm McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC to investigate the matter.

No tax hike

County council adopted the county’s 2019 budget on Dec. 11. It includes no tax increase. Council removed $1 million in proposed funding for new voting machines and cut proposed expenditures from county divisions and departments to eliminate the 3 percent tax increase in the budget proposal Pedri presented in October.

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