NANTICOKE — What’s the most important issue facing Luzerne County government?
County Council and controller candidates on Tuesday’s general election ballot were asked to answer that question during Wednesday night’s Wilkes-Barre Area League of Women Voters forum at Luzerne County Community College.
The two controller contenders — Republican Carolee Medico Olenginski and Democrat Michelle Bednar — went first.
Medico Olenginski cited the 2014 budget as the main issue, saying the proposed budget is “ridiculous” and a “real train wreck” because it jeopardizes some mandated services and doesn’t cut some departments that could absorb reductions.
Restoring taxpayer confidence in the controller’s office was the issue pinpointed by Bednar, who promised to make the office transparent, correct problems before they escalate and implement more internal controls.
Eleven candidates are competing 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 synopsis of the main issues they identified:
• Giamber: leadership. He compared council to a corporate board that must ensure management is effectively overseeing operations on behalf of the shareholders, the taxpayers.
• Ciaruffoli-Taffera: lack of accountability. She pointed to conflicting statements about the state of county finances and said officials have not complied with at least 25 home rule requirements, including an audit deadline and mandate to include a narrative with the 2014 proposed budget.
• DeFabo: debt. Debt repayments totalling $27 million next year are “killing the county,” and getting finances in order to obtain an investment-grade credit rating needed to refinance must be a top priority because it could save millions of dollars, he said.
• Heffron: generating revenue. He said the assessment appeal process must be examined because the county tax base increased $401 million in a one-year period but lost $398 million of that growth due to assessment reductions, which is a greater loss compared to other counties he surveyed.
• Rossi: taxes. The county must find ways to bring in new businesses and revenue because property owners are struggling to pay and many younger residents are leaving the area due to a lack of jobs, she said.
• Kelleher: debt. He said county officials must pressure legislators to allow the county to implement a sales or entertainment tax to generate revenue that could be earmarked specifically for debt repayments owed through 2027, when voters could then decide whether to keep or end the tax.
• Haas: decency. Council members must work together to find solutions to rebuild the county, such as the switch to in-house tax collection projected to save more than $1 million over four years that he supported, because changing a county marred by generations of political corruption and other problems won’t happen overnight, he said.
• Sorokas: the budget. She promised to make difficult decisions and seek new revenue, saying she will not raise property taxes.
• Dobash: taxes. She said she won’t increase property taxes and believes council must provide more checks and balances and break into work groups to zero in on human services, the court system and prison to find efficiencies.
• McClosky Houck: the budget. She has been actively involved in development of the first “unqualified audit” in county history, saying this type of more thorough and researched audit is needed because the county can’t move forward without a solid review of all county finances.
• Williams: balance and analysis. County government is gray and loaded with a web of intertwined issues and decisions with no “magic-bullet” solutions, and he said he approaches complicated problems with an open mind and willingness to listen to others and ask questions to try to reach a consensus.