WILKES-BARRE — Overlooking a tax hike that will cost an additional $144 a year to the median homeowner, residents instead railed against a move by the city to apply for a grant at no expense to taxpayers.
The city council at its Thursday night public meeting gave the go-ahead for Mayor Tony George to apply for a $1 million grant for the planned expansion of Berkshire Hathaway Guard insurance, possibly on the site where the Hotel Sterling stood downtown.
The money would come from the Local Share Account program administered by the state and funded with revenues from the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino in Plains Township.
The city would pass through the money for the Guard project, but there is no guarantee the grant would be awarded because other municipalities in Luzerne County also seek the funding for projects.
George, who made a rare appearance at the meeting, said he supported the $50 million project “2,000 percent” on account of the 400 to 500 new jobs it would create and he wanted to keep the company owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett in the city. Other states are also pursuing the company, George said, adding, “I’m not going to lose it.”
Still, the fact that the city was even contemplating applying for the money drew complaints.
Resident Sam Troy called it “quasi-corporate welfare.” He requested that council hold a public hearing to bring out into the open what dealings the city has already had privately with the company.
“This money going for this project is morally wrong,” Troy said.
He joined Bob Kadluboski in opposition to the city seeking the grant for the project.
“Why is it every time these big deals want something, they come to me to pay for it,” Kadluboski asked.
Councilman Bill Barrett supported the project, but attempted to reassure them that the city was not handing out money.
“We’re not giving them anything,” Barrett said.
The company is looking at sites in the downtown, including the city-owned Hotel Sterling that’s also designated a Keystone Opportunity Zone offering tax relief until 2024. The grant would play a key role in the company’s decision to stay local, city officials said.
If the city sold the property, it could possibly recoup the nearly $600,000 it spent to secure and later demolish the building in 2013. The county stands to benefit from a sale as well, applying proceeds to the $6 million Community Development money it loaned to CityVest that exhausted the funds attempting to prepare the building for development.
The tax hike, however, drew no complaints.
The city council approved the second and final reading of an ordinance that raised property taxes by 19.7 mills to balance the mayor’s $47.1 million general fund budget for this year. The increase raised the millage rate to 141.33 mills.
A mill is a $1 tax for every $1,000 assessed value of a property. Under the new rate, the annual tax for a property assessed at $79,500, the median value in the city, would be $1,033, a difference of $144 under the old tax rate.
Other agenda items approved by council were:
• Transfer of a restaurant liquor license to Vault Grill & Bar LLC, 24 W. Market St., from Pretty Mugs Inc. in Swoyersville.
• A resolution urging “the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board to strongly consider” a city site for the location of a new, consolidated high school.”
• The inclusion of the signatures of Darren Snyder, city controller, and Ted Wampole, city administrator, on a supplemental agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation regarding the completed Sidney Street Bridge project.
• A resolution in support of Congress passing “tough, new anti-corruption laws” pertaining to campaign financing.