Area Dems blame budget politics

Last updated: July 08. 2014 11:23PM - 1633 Views
By Bill O’Boyle boboyle@civitasmedia.com

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State Senate tackles sweeping budget bill, page 7A

WILKES-BARRE — State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski said Tuesday the longer the delay in granting state gaming funds to Luzerne County municipalities, “the more money it costs everyone” who has planned and invested in submitting a request.

Pashinski was commenting on the the Commonwealth Financing Authority’s decision to cancel its meeting, delaying the awarding of gaming grants to Luzerne County towns for the third consecutive time. The first delay came in May.

“I made a quick inquiry and there appears to be no apparent reason to delay these meetings and begin granting the projects other than for the governor to use the projects as leverage for what he wants,” Pashinski said. “It’s another example of poor decision-making.”

Pashinski said about $11 million to $12 million in gaming fund grants is expected to be allocated to Luzerne County. In 2013, 17 projects received funding from a total allocation of $11.5 million:

• $562,500 to Pittston for downtown revitalization and streetscape improvements.

• $627,500 to Plymouth for Main Street development.

• $500,000 to Nanticoke on behalf of Luzerne County Community College to relocate and expand its new Culinary Institute in the city’s downtown.

Wilkes-Barre was a big winner, being one of only two municipalities to score a grant each year the program has been in place. Plains Township — where the casino is located and which is guaranteed annual grants according to the state gaming law — is the other.

Wilkes-Barre has received $9.857 million to fund numerous projects from purchasing a police cruiser and equipment for a single-stream recycling effort to upgrading the city’s surveillance cameras and establishing a facade improvement grant program.

“Each grant that has been approved is a project that creates or retains jobs; therefore a timely granting process from beginning to end is vital to save money and get people to work,” Pashinski said.

State response

Steven Kratz, director of communications at the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said the CFA meeting hasn’t been rescheduled at this time.

“The CFA meeting was canceled to focus on other priorities,” he said. “We still do not have a new fiscal-year budget enacted, and the Legislature has not passed a final fiscal code.”

Kratz said the CFA is administered by a board of directors with representation from the executive branch and each of the four legislative caucuses.

“All projects must receive a super-majority, meaning all board members must approve a project,” Kratz said. “If one member of the board votes no, the project is not approved. The CFA has received 79 projects that request more than $45.5 million. Only $11 million in funds are available.”

Kratz said there is no guarantee action would have been taken Tuesday regarding the Luzerne County projects, noting there were two prior meetings where action was not taken.

It has not been determined if the CFA meeting scheduled for July will be rescheduled or if the meeting scheduled for September will be the next meeting, he said.

“The fact is, the governor is still reviewing the budget,” Kratz said. “There are numerous projects on the agenda that are good projects and of interest to the four caucuses and the executive branch, and these are still under consideration. These legislators should discuss their issues with the four caucuses.”

Motive questioned

But that explanation did not sit well with local lawmakers. State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, said Tuesday’s meeting was canceled “at the behest” of Gov. Tom Corbett.

“Democratic leadership and members of the Luzerne County caucus were notified of the cancellation via e-mail less than 24 hours before the meeting’s scheduled start time,” Mullery said. “I hope the governor is not procrastinating with the ill-guided hope he could leverage the program against his failed agenda items.”

Mullery said there is no direct link between the budget, the fiscal code and the CFA projects.

“I, along with my colleagues in Luzerne County, remain committed to working with leadership and the governor to fund these important community projects as quickly as possible,” Mullery said.

State Sen. John Blake, D-Archbald, said he, too, did not know why the CFA meeting was canceled, but he said it was his understanding “it was the Corbett administration that canceled it.” He said the cancellation came as a surprise to the four caucuses represented on the CFA.

“If I had to speculate on it, I would say the governor is sending a statement to members of the Legislature that he is not satisfied with the failure of his agenda and as such will use whatever leverage he can to try to force additional attention toward his misguided and fiscally irresponsible policies,” Blake said.

State Rep. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, was the only Republican legislator to respond to The Times Leader’s request for comment.

“I was informed about the CFA Board meeting cancellation, but the administration did not provide a reason,” is all she would say.

Awaiting approvals

The CFA is considering requests from Luzerne County municipalities on 79 proposed projects totalling $46.5 million. The projects would be funded through a state tax on money pumped into the casino’s 2,332 lot machines.

The complex and competitive process started last year when municipalities began compiling projects suitable for submission. Projects could be as small as a municipal need, such as a street sweeper in Hanover Township or a paving project in Forty Fort.

But for others, it could represent more than $8 million for a city like Wilkes-Barre that submitted applications on behalf of six public and private projects.

Among the city’s requests:

• $3 million for renovations of the former Ramada Hotel on Public Square that has been purchased by King’s College for academic use.

• $1.53 million for track and field renovations at Kirby Park.

• $1.5 million for upgrading the surveillance camera system network.

The process

At the end of 2013, the municipalities submitted their applications to the authority, which began analyzing them and reviewing need and impact.

Less than one quarter of the $46.5 million requested will actually receive funding, leaving most of the projects unfunded on this go-around and even the approved projects may not be allocated the full amount requested.

Since the first gaming grants were awarded in 2008, more than $73 million has been allocated to projects throughout Luzerne County, from $24,144 for a Nescopeck police cruiser to $12 million to help fund roadway work leading from Interstate 81 and state Route 315 into the sprawling CenterPoint East Commerce & Trade Park in Jenkins Township.

By law, 2 percent of money wagered in Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs slot machines is earmarked to be allocated to communities submitting grants each year. So far, the allocations have helped pay for municipal buildings, recycling centers, a library and other public projects.

Luzerne County projects looking for gaming funds were not addressed at CFA meetings in March and May.

At recent meetings, the CFA has approved the allocation of approximately $11.8 million in gaming funds to support 69 community and economic development projects in Monroe, Carbon, Lackawanna, Northampton, Pike and Wayne counties.

The counties receive revenues through the Mount Airy Casino Resort in Mount Pocono. In total, 16 projects in Monroe County were awarded nearly $3.8 million by the CFA. The other counties were awarded nearly $8 million for 53 projects

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