Board also votes to consider Murray Complex for new high school site

Last updated: June 30. 2014 11:38PM -
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WILKES-BARRE — Two measures approved by the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board on Monday were met with disdain from some taxpayer advocates.

One decision was to raise the real estate property tax rate 2.25 percent, from 15.522 mills to 15.871 mills. A mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 in assessed property value. That means a Wilkes-Barre Area tax bill on house valued at $100,000 will be about $35 higher for 2014-15 school year.

The board is using nearly $6.9 million of the district’s $12.6 million surplus to cover a deficit, rather than cut services or personnel or raise taxes further.

The other decision was to add the Murray Complex, located off Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilkes-Barre, to a list of properties to be considered for the site of a new high school complex in a feasibility study.

Four taxpayers pleaded with the board of directors during public comment, asking them not to raise taxes because taxpayers can’t afford it.

One of them, Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association President Frank Sorick, also condemned the board for “rewarding” Murray Complex owner Daniel Siniawa “for his neglect of his property in downtown Wilkes-Barre.”

“It sat there abandoned for years, the city refused to do anything with it. Now, the School Board will probably enrich Mr. Siniawa with a nice contract on that,” Sorick said.

Solicitor Ray Wendolowski reminded the public the vote was to add the complex to a list of properties to be considered, not to approve the property as a high school site.

Sorick said that three years ago while working at a voting site, he overheard a city official “discussing this plan … that the Murray Complex would house this super structure for Wilkes-Barre Area.”

Siniawa paid $1.5 million to purchase the 11.63-acre property from Thomas Murray at a bankruptcy auction in 2004. Siniawa representatives had touted a $22 million plan to construct 60 condominiums, two restaurants with courtyards and 50,000-60,000 square feet of retail space, creating 45 jobs.

The buildings were demolished years ago, but the bricks and debris have remained on the site long after. In July 2012, $4.7 million in government funding toward the project was lost when the promised money was canceled due to inactivity.

About a year ago, city Mayor Tom Leighton had said he had meetings planned with Siniawa to discuss the project further. Nothing has been reported publicly on the site since, except when Kingston resident Robert Phillips suggested using the site for a high school complex in an October 2013 letter to the editor.

Board member Christine Katsock voted against including the property in the feasibility study.

The board also voted 8-1, with Katsock dissenting, to remove the former Valley Crest nursing home and a site off state Route 115 from the list of potential sites. The vote was the same on asking the three architectural firms that usually perform such work for the city to team up to conduct the feasibility study.

Katsock and board President Louis Elmy voted against approving the $111.1 million 2014-15 school year budget with a tax increase. The resolution also set other tax rates and fees, including: a $10 per capita tax, a $10 local services tax, a 1-percent earned income tax, a business privilege tax of 1.5 mills and a mercantile tax at a rate previously set forth.

The board also unanimously approved a real estate tax reduction of $215.37 per homestead as per the Exclusion Program Act and the Taxpayer Relief Act.

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