Luzerne County Council has joined Wilkes-Barre City Council in approving the Hotel Sterling demolition, leaving the project's fate up to the building's nonprofit owner, CityVest.
CityVest has refused to sign the three-party demolition agreement unless the county agrees to release the nonprofit from any future claims or actions that may arise.
Council voted to support county Manager Robert Lawton's strong recommendation to reject the release, with county Councilman Jim Bobeck describing CityVest's request as repugnant.
Lawton said CityVest representatives did not indicate why they were so insistent on the special release.
Councilman Rick Williams asked Lawton what reaction he expects from CityVest.
Lawton said he has no idea.
They have the ability to walk away and leave it to other people to address the situation, he said.
The agreement approved Tuesday limits county funding for demolition to $232,729, while the city will contribute the remaining $260,000.
CityVest sought government intervention because the nonprofit is out of funds. CityVest spent $6 million in county loans on consultants, expanding the parcel and tearing down a structure connected to the former hotel at the corner of River and Market streets in Wilkes-Barre.
CityVest's insurance coverage on the property also has expired, said county Controller Walter Griffith.
Councilman Edward Brominski criticized CityVest's handling of the project, which failed to restore the hotel and create jobs.
The agreement adopted by council would guarantee the county is first in line to recoup some of its loan by receiving proceeds if the land is sold, Lawton said.
He estimated the 4-acre parcel fronting the Susquehanna River is worth $750,000 to $1 million.
The county would obtain the title after the site is cleared to the county's satisfaction, he said.
The county also would control development of the parcel and would be free to negotiate with an existing interested developer or seek other outside proposals, he said. Lawton said a new public request for proposals may attract more developers if there's assurance the site will be cleared.
J.G. Petrucci Company Inc., the lone developer expressing an interest, has proposed a five-story, 75,000-square-foot commercial, retail and residential project.
Lawton said he believes J.G. Petrucci is a credible developer with projects in the Allentown area and New Jersey. However, he said the company might expect government funding for the project. Lawton said he doesn't want to provide additional funds and wants a project that will create jobs, which was one of the promises when the $6 million loan was provided to CityVest.
Councilman Harry Haas said he wants a project that will improve the downtown, visually and economically.
In other business, council voted to ask the solicitor to draft an ordinance that would require employees to work 40 hours, as tracked through the time clock system, to receive benefits.
The change would not take effect unless council adopts the ordinance in the future.
Union employees would not be impacted until their collective bargaining agreements expire. New union contracts must conform with the requirement if it passes, officials said.
County officials say the measure is a step toward the goal of switching the entire workforce to 40-hour weeks, and some audience members applauded the vote during Tuesday's meeting, which concluded around 11 p.m.
Full-time employees currently work from 32.5 to 40 hours, depending on the position and department.
Lawton also told council the prison will stop providing free meals to employees – an issue raised by Brominski at Monday's budget hearing. Lawton said Prison Warden Joe Piazza is preparing an explanation on why the free meals were provided.
After debating various salaries, council also voted to increase the future compensation for the county's elected controller from $36,562 to $64,999.
The new salary will take effect for the controller elected next year.
Lawton also announced employees won't be accepting any calendars or other items from vendors that do business with the county because it may violate an ethics code ban on gifts.