Getting to know the Luzerne County candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot is a daunting task.
It took an hour for contenders to present a snapshot of their backgrounds and platforms during a Monday night forum because 11 people are running for council and two are competing for controller.
That left another hour for each to answer one randomly selected question during the forum sponsored by Downtown Residents Association at Wilkes University.
Republican Carolee Medico Olenginski is running against Democrat Michelle Bednar for controller. The 11 candidates vying for five council seats: Republicans Paul DeFabo, Kathy Dobash, Sue Rossi, Harry Haas and Eugene Kelleher; Democrats Renee Ciaruffoli-Taffera, Michael Giamber, Richard “Kick” Heffron, Linda McClosky Houck and Eileen M. Sorokas; and Independent Rick Williams.
A few candidates were asked the same question. Here’s a synopsis of their responses to condensed versions of the questions:
• Any ideas to stabilize county finances without a tax hike?
Dobash: The county, like struggling families, must live within its means. The county manager has a “well-paid staff” that should be presenting solutions and prevent overspending. Employees should be contributing more toward health care. The manager should consider a pay cut.
Williams: Cutting out waste, reducing costs and possibly services could “nibble around the edges,” but there’s “no magic” fix. The long-term solution involves working with legislators to allow a sales tax or allowing the county to receive some of the county hotel tax revenue instead of diverting most of it to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township, which is in “pretty good shape.” He also wants legislators to allow the public to attend binding arbitration proceedings when the county and its unions reach an impasse.
• What should the county’s role be in promoting economic development?
Kelleher: The county needs more communication with colleges, business leaders and chambers of commerce on how to promote the region’s proximity to interstates 80 and 81 and its workforce willing to accept “very competitive” salaries. County leaders should push state legislators to allow a sales tax to generate revenue to pay off the county’s more than $400 million in outstanding debt.
• Do you support the Wyoming Valley Levee fee or believe all county residents should pay for maintenance of the flood-control system?
Haas: He pays the fee, which generates about $1.2 million annually, on a Kingston and Wilkes-Barre property, and reversed his stance against the fee after the levee prevented mass flooding when the Susquehanna River swelled to a record height in 2011. Expecting someone in Sweet Valley to fund levee maintenance isn’t fair.
Giamber: All property owners should contribute to levee maintenance because the entire county would be negatively impacted if the Wyoming Valley floods. Each property owner would have to contribute about $7 annually based on the number of tax bills and revenue generated by the fee, and the entire county is already repaying money borrowed to raise the levee.
• What is County Council’s role in ensuring the county workforce is qualified, compensated and equipped for duties?
Heffron: The home rule charter set basic parameters for hiring and job qualifications, and council must approve administrative, personnel and ethics codes with strict guidelines for operating the county. Council can amend these codes if more control or direction is required over the manager.
• What is your opinion of council’s decision to publicly post emails they exchange with each other?
McClosky Houck: It’s a great idea that goes in line with holding meetings at night so more people can attend and having televised council meetings. The posting shows council has “nothing to hide.” The length of council meetings and occasional disorder of meetings is also evidence decisions aren’t being made in the “back room.”
• In light of municipal bankruptcies across the nation, how should the county deal with unions when contracts expire?
Sorokas: As a retired non-county union worker, she said she understands the importance of unions and served on committees that negotiated contracts. However, the county cannot afford to increase wages and benefits. The unions “are not our enemies,” and the county must work with them to reach agreements that “suit everyone.”
• How would you suggest funding county parks and recreational assets, such as Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township and the River Common in Wilkes-Barre?
Ciaruffoli-Taffera: The county is receiving about $400,000 from natural gas funding awarded through Act 13. That funding was used for non-recreation expenses this year but should be segregated solely for parks and recreation next year.
• How to you interpret County Council’s duties under home rule?
Rossi: Council members must share and consider their individual views when reaching decisions so council doesn’t “turn into another school board” with voting blocs. Eleven viewpoints are better than decision-making by three commissioners or two majority commissioners under the prior government system. She also promised to follow the charter and “keep an eye on” the manager.
• How would you respond if you disagree with a decision made by the county manager?
DeFabo: He never met county Manager Robert Lawton but would stress the importance of communication and the impact of county actions on the public. Decisions must be thoroughly considered before plans are released to the public.
• The controller candidates were asked how they will ensure money is spent in a fiscally responsible way.
Bednar said every program will be audited, and she will work with departments and elected officials to correct any concerns that are identified and not leave the office each day until duties are completed to her satisfaction.
Medico Olenginski said the controller must be adept at sniffing out problems because audits never detected past theft and questionable spending with debit cards and the records fund. Courage to speak out is necessary because people involved in questionable spending may “put obstacles in your way,” she said.