Sunday, July 13, 2014

Luzerne County officials question Hazleton transit funding

Council grudgingly approves allocation of nearly $128,000

July 24. 2013 11:57PM

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Luzerne County Council somewhat reluctantly voted Tuesday to give the Hazleton Public Transit an annual allocation of $127,949 toward its bus service in the county’s southern end.

Several council members hesitated because Hazleton officials have refused the state’s push to put their busing service under the Luzerne County Transportation Authority.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation estimated a merger could save as much as $1 million annually and reduce the county’s overall contribution toward busing, said county Manager Robert Lawton. The county pays an annual allocation to the LCTA, which is $485,345 this year.

Lawton also noted the Hazleton Public Transit, which serves the city and its suburbs, has an estimated $400,000 reserve that could be tapped as a local match if the county halted its funding.

Council members agreed Tuesday night to require city officials to appear before them to explain why they won’t accept a merger or stop relying on a county contribution.

County Councilman Rick Williams voted against the Hazleton allocation Tuesday. “I support the people of Hazleton. They should have good bus service, but I have yet to hear any really compelling reasons why they couldn’t merge, so I’m voting no,” Williams said.

Council members Stephen A. Urban, Stephen J. Urban, Jim Bobeck and Edward Brominski voted for the allocation but voiced reservations.

“I do believe we are funding operational inefficiencies,” Bobeck said, emphasizing Hazleton should not count on county funding next year.

Stephen A. Urban said he wants Hazleton Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi and other city officials to justify the county funding, especially in light of the city’s property tax increase. The city millage rate increased 45 percent this year.

“This is really a gift to the city of Hazleton because they can’t or don’t want to make payments on their own,” he said.

Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry, who supported the allocation, disagreed with the use of the word “gift” and said Hazleton officials told her they don’t believe a merger would save money or maintain the quality of Hazleton-area bus service.

Council members Eugene Kelleher, Tim McGinley and Linda McClosky Houck also voted for the allocation. Council members Rick Morelli and Harry Haas were absent.

Yannuzzi weighs in

Yannuzzi said Wednesday that the Public Transit, a branch of city government, has an executive director and buses but relies on outside contractors to fuel, drive and maintain the vehicles. City officials believe these contracts are cheaper than hiring staffers.

“We have no unions and no pensions for bus transportation,” said Yannuzzi. “We pay a flat price, and we’ve been doing well.”

The city requests a county match because one is provided to the LCTA for bus transportation in the county’s northern end, he said.

Yannuzzi also points to a controversy over the tracking of senior citizen bus riders at the LCTA and said city officials don’t want to risk a decline in service. Many workers rely on the buses to access workplaces in the Humboldt Industrial Park in Hazle Township, he said.

“They can’t prove to us that a merger would save money,” said Yannuzzi. “It really isn’t going to, no matter what they say.”

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