Luzerne County Councilwoman Kathy Dobash fired off a letter to newspapers last week accusing county Manager Robert Lawton of spending $3 million in capital bond funds to “run day-to-day operations” in the courthouse in 2012.
But Lawton said he has not dipped into the county’s segregated capital bonds fund to cover daily operating expenses such as salaries and office supplies since he became county manager in early 2012.
A report prepared by the county budget/finance office shows $4.3 million was spent from the capital fund in 2012, and more than half — at least $2.36 million — was for courthouse restoration, road paving, flood repairs and a 911 computer-aided dispatch system.
County Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz, who did not start working for the county until 2013, said further research would be required to tie the remaining expenditures to other specific capital project categories. The report compiled by his office lists around 280 separate invoices supporting the $4.3 million in expenses.
“The expenditure report from the bonds speaks for itself,” Lawton said.
Dobash, who became a council member in January, said she is basing her assertion on a recent audit conclusion that the administration spent an inherited $3.7 million surplus on operating expenses in 2012. Dobash said this surplus consisted of capital funding from past bonds.
She said she will stand by her argument unless she receives information proving she is wrong.
Dobash also said the administration should start presenting periodic public updates on how the capital funding is being spent because “it seems council has no clue what’s going on” with the fund.
“If the manager wants to dispute my allegation, great. At the very least, we should be getting more accountability,” Dobash said.
The county has about $18 million left and may not be in a position to borrow again for years because it does not have an uninsured credit rating. The county owes nearly $400 million from past borrowing and can’t refinance debt repayments at lower interest rates without the credit rating, officials say.
Swetz said invoices show $1.9 million in capital bond funds were spent in 2013, including $1.09 million on courthouse restoration. Another $117,612 was spent through May of this year, including $80,000 on courthouse roof repairs.
He did not have an immediate report available on revenue pumped back into the fund, such as state and federal reimbursement for flood repairs.
Dobash raised the issue about spending of the capital bond because some council members have criticized county Councilman Stephen A. Urban’s proposal to earmark $2 million of the capital bond funds for repairs at county-owned Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township — a plan Dobash supports.
A vote on Urban’s proposal was slated for Tuesday’s council meeting, but county Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri sent an email to council indicating Urban has agreed to hold off on a vote for now.
Pedri said the Moon Lake allocation would be considered an amendment of the capital plan under the home rule charter, and a public hearing is required before council votes on the capital plan by Sept. 1. He advised council members to review the Moon Lake suggestion along with any other proposed amendments before deciding whether they want to vote to alter the manager’s capital plan or do nothing so it stands as is.
The $18 million in remaining bond funding came from an $87.89 million bond package approved by former commissioners in 2008 to fund capital projects, a deficit and improvements at Luzerne County Community College.
Commissioners set aside $34.47 million of the borrowed funds for county capital projects.
However, commissioners also tapped into the $34.47 capital projects portion to create breathing room in the county’s general fund budget, using a total $3.9 million to help repay debt in 2010 and 2011.
A County Council majority also reluctantly decided to remove another $1.4 million from the capital fund in 2012 to repay debt.