Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton settled into a chair Wednesday night facing eight residents who showed up for his annual public forum and spent more than three hours candidly responding to their questions and concerns.
It was Lawton’s second forum, which is required by the county’s 2-year-old home rule government.
“The floor is yours,” Lawton told the group.
Citizen Ed Gustitus asked Lawton to identify his “toughest nut to crack this coming year.”
“Continuing to reduce the cost of county government,” Lawton said, predicting there will be fewer people working in county government in 2015 compared to 2014.
Filling three vacant division head posts established by home rule — budget/finance, human services and operational services — is an immediate focus, Lawton said.
He expects to present nominations for the three positions to council for its confirmation in coming weeks, saying employees in departments under these divisions are “running in too many directions” without permanent leadership.
Lawton said he has been criticized because some of his past nominees for other division head posts were from outside the area.
“My job is to find the best-qualified people I can find — not the best-qualified people who already work here or are from Luzerne County,” Lawton said.
Gustitus said Lawton and the division heads must still correct inherited problems with questionable hirings and politics.
“Are they going to be tough enough? You’ve got to be tough,” Gustitus said.
“He’s tough. That’s why they don’t like him,” said a citizen who spoke often but said he did not want his name printed.
Lawton acknowledged he and his administration have made mistakes and are “not perfect” but said, “we’re getting better at what we do.”
Citizen Tom Dombroski asked why the county won’t try to make municipalities take ownership of 127 miles of roadway and 310 bridges that must be maintained and plowed by the county.
Lawton said he had publicly offered to pay the $1 transaction fee if municipalities are willing to take them but said he will do more to try to advance the request by writing a letter to each municipality by the end of the month.
“Perhaps I should include a crisp $1 bill with each one,” he said jokingly, generating laughter.
A synopsis of a few other questions posed Wednesday along with Lawton’s responses:
• What are you doing to encourage economic development?
Economic development agencies are already set up to attract employers, and he said he has developed a relationship with the leaders of these groups. He doesn’t believe there’s a value in the manager “running from ribbon-cutting to ribbon-cutting” taking credit for projects these agencies initiated, though he’s accessible if they need assistance he can provide.
Instead, he views the manager’s role as getting the county on a “consistent and strong financial footing” and running a county government “that dispels the stench of corruption where people don’t feel embarrassed by the courthouse.”
• Why doesn’t the county provide property assessment details online for the public and use technology that identifies new construction to reduce manpower spent tracking properties that should be added to tax rolls?
Lawton said he and Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri are working with the assessment office to review processes and procedures. He said he will examine the software contract containing property descriptions to see if it’s cost efficient to restore online public access that had been provided during the countywide reassessment.
He also said the assessment office is developing a form that will allow the public to identify properties they believe have questionable values. The county could then provide a response or explanation, even if the county is barred from changing the values until the next reassessment. He said he won’t recommend another reassessment until sales data demonstrates a significant number of assessments are out-of-whack, justifying the expense.
• How do you handle criticism from council members and the public?
He said he has “broad shoulders” and recently bumped into a man at the gas station who told him he hates the 8-percent county tax hike for 2014, which was recommended by the manager, but still thinks Lawton is “doing a good job.”
“I’m employed at the will of the council, but I serve the people of this county,” he said.
• Why don’t you try to make more tax-exempt organizations make payments in lieu of taxes?
He is preparing a report on which organizations make these payments, commonly known as “pilots,” and said many don’t offer anything to help compensate for the county services they receive. He said he will publicly present a report in the near future as part of an effort to increase these voluntary contributions.