PITTSTON — With no Republican candidates running, the outcome of Pittston’s Democratic primary on Tuesday could decide who will fill the roles of mayor and city controller next year, as well as who will fill the two City Council seats on the ballot.
Despite both mayoral candidates being of the same party, the race has proven divisive. Challenger Gene Rooney accuses the administration of his opponent, incumbent Jason Klush, of lacking transparency and efficiency.
Rooney said he thinks the city’s taxes are too high and said that the 20 percent tax reduction Klush promised should a home rule form of government be passed never happened. Klush countered that the reduction did take place, asserting that he has “no idea” why Rooney would think otherwise.
“We just changed to home rule and we did decrease property taxes,” said Klush. “We didn’t raise taxes at all since I came in. We gave a break of over $100 per household. It’s tough these days to cut taxes. You have a lot of overhead and you have to deal with unions. … We’re going to try to get an even bigger decrease in property taxes this year. This was just our first run at it.”
Rooney also said Klush has neglected Pittston’s neighborhoods in favor of focusing on the downtown.
“The thing with (Rooney) is he hasn’t seen all the stuff we have been doing, fixing sewer lines and going in with code enforcement and cleaning up some of the problems,” Klush said in response. “We have done a lot; a lot of people just don’t see it.”
Approached by neighbors
Neighbors inspired Rooney to run for mayor.
“They said, ‘With your background, with your law enforcement background, why don’t you consider running?’ ” Rooney said.
Rooney, who owns Rooney’s Irish Pub, was previously a member of the police departments in Poughkeepsie and Peekskill, N.Y.
“I’ve gone door to door to ask people what their concerns are. I just want to represent their concerns. This isn’t about me,” he added.
Klush is supported by current Councilman Mike Lombardo and former Councilman Kenneth Bangs, while Rooney has found an ally in Barb Zangre. All three Democrats are competing for the two council seats on the ballot.
Like Rooney, Zangre is critical of the administration, stressing a need for increased emphasis on the city’s neighborhoods, its parks and recreation.
“To me, quality of life is extremely important,” she said. “I think it’s important that we embrace the needs of our seniors and our youth, who are our past and our future, to create a strong community. I think it is the responsibility of a community to have facilities and places for people to have fun and relax and enjoy their life.”
Among Zangre’s proposals are the possible creation of a dog park, walking and skateboarding trails, and reopening of the public swimming pool.
Lombardo responded that the administration has had ideas on improving quality of life, including: Partnering with the YMCA on various programs, continuation of the Tomato Festival, organizing a music festival and the institution of Second Fridays (which replicates the arts and entertainment-centered First Fridays of Scranton and Third Fridays of Wilkes-Barre).
“We’re doing a lot of things to enrich life in the community,” Lombardo said, “but that’s only one aspect of what a municipality has to do. It also has to pay the bills. We’ve balanced our budget every year and reduced property taxes.”
More important for Lombardo is the continuation of the City of Pittston Neighborhood Housing Initiative, which seeks to combat blight and bring in more residents through the generation of affordable housing.
It is initiatives like this that helped inspire former council member Bangs to seek a return to position after a hiatus following his previous two terms. Bangs echoed Lombardo’s comments about improving the state of the neighborhoods and removing blight, stating that plans to do so are chief among his priorities.
Running unopposed in the primary is incumbent city Controller Chris Latona. This is the last election his seat will be on the ballot because home rule eliminates the position.