Recently, the Luzerne County manager stated that he was considering termination of the existing inter-governmental partnership between the county and the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority.
In a prior commentary in The Times Leader, I provided a summary of the history of the Wyoming Valley Flood Protection System and the reasoning behind the development of this cooperation agreement. The intent of today’s commentary is to highlight the cost reimbursement details that occur through this agreement.
The Flood Protection Authority is tasked with the maintenance and operation of the Wyoming Valley Flood Protection System. Elements of this system include 16 miles of levees and floodwalls, 13 federal pump stations that contain 39 deep-well pumps, 8.4 miles of electric transmission lines, seven transformer substations, 31 drainage structures, 130 relief wells and 20 closure structures.
The authority’s labor force consists of 11 individuals. Only two individuals, the executive director and an executive secretary, are employed by the authority. The remaining nine individuals are Luzerne County Road & Bridge Department employees who are assigned full time as field personnel to the flood protection system.
The annual maintenance and operations budget for the flood protection system is fully funded by the revenue obtained through the levee fee. The levee fee is imposed on the 14,000-plus properties that are located within the limits of the 1972 Agnes Flood event. The amount of this revenue is approximately $1.4 million per year. The authority receives no financial assistance or subsidies from the federal, state or Luzerne County governments.
For the authority’s 11 workers, all of their wages (non-represented, represented, overtime, longevity, seasonal upgrades, etc.), payroll taxes (FICA, Medicare, unemployment) and benefits (health insurance, uniform allowance, life insurance, retirement) are fully paid by the authority. In the authority’s fiscal year 2014 budget, $718,610 has been allocated for these employee expenses. Every two-week pay period, the authority reimburses the county for all employee costs for the prior two-week period.
All costs to maintain and operate the flood protection system (tools, supplies, vehicle/equipment fuel, contractual services, telephone, electricity, gas, sewer, water, sanitation, equipment rentals, equipment repairs, training, insurance, etc.) are fully paid by the authority. In the authority’s fiscal year 2014 budget, $745,887 has been allocated for these maintenance and operation expenses.
During the course of the year, the county provides intermittent front-office support services to the authority, such as human resources, payroll and accounts payable assistance. It should be noted that these identical support services are provided to all other county departments and agencies.
At the end of each year, the authority identifies any costs not previously paid that year and provides a cost-balancing reimbursement to the county. For example, at the end of last year, the authority paid to Luzerne County nearly $70,000 for unreimbursed expenses, rent, general and administrative office overhead. The office overhead, general and administrative cost calculations are based upon Luzerne County’s A-87 Cost-Allocation Plan for that specific year.
In the spirit of inter-governmental cooperation and for the common good, the authority provides services to the county for which it never invoices. For example, in 2013 and so far in 2014, the authority has consumed nearly 2,200 man-hours on the following county-owned facilities: River Commons Park Millennium Circle fountain; River Commons Park riverside cleanup; North Cross-Valley Expressway lighting; South Cross-Valley Expressway lighting; Nanticoke-West Nanticoke Bridge lighting; Shickshinny-Mocanaqua Bridge lighting and delivering fuel to the county road districts, since no other individuals in the Road & Bridge Department have a license to transport hazardous materials.
In addition to the above, along the east side of the Susquehanna River downstream from the courthouse, the Union Street Pump Station electric meter serves the six Flood Protection Authority pump stations located in South Wilkes-Barre and also the county-owned River Commons Park. It is cost-prohibitive to attempt to meter these facilities separately. So, again in the spirit of inter-governmental cooperation and for the common good, the authority pays the electricity costs to operate the county-owned River Commons Park. As noted previously, the authority pays for all electricity costs to operate the 13 federal pump stations in the flood protection system.
I believe the above illustrates that, at the end of the year, the authority’s burden to the county’s General Fund is zero dollars. The 11 employees of the authority constitute only 0.86 percent of the county’s overall workforce. So any possible savings associated with the termination of the existing cooperation agreement would appear to be minuscule, at best. The abrupt end to the cooperation agreement would be reckless and irresponsible and would threaten the public safety of the residents of the Wyoming Valley. If termination of the agreement should be approved by the Luzerne County Council, the separation would need to be performed in such a way that the public safety is not imperiled.
The Susquehanna River is one of the most flood-prone waterways in the United States. Since 1865, the river has exceeded the natural flood stage of 22 feet on 77 occasions – or approximately once every two years. Therefore, it is no accident that the Wyoming Valley Flood Protection System is one of the largest systems in the United States.
The primary mission of the authority is to protect the Wyoming Valley from loss of property, infrastructure and lives due to high-water events along the Susquehanna River. The authority earns high praise from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with how we maintain and operate the system and for our emergency response during flood events.
I am very proud to represent the authority and of the collective work we have accomplished since I became the executive director in November 2013. I am very fortunate to work for a board whose members embrace the mission of the authority, who stay engaged, remain informed and who continually challenge me to make the authority better. I am honored to work for these committed volunteers whose sole motivation is to serve the community and promote public safety.
Since 1968, the Corps of Engineers estimates that nearly $8 billion in flood damages have been prevented in the Wyoming Valley due to the operation of the flood protection system. This number does not include the endless human suffering that typically occurs in the aftermath from a major flood event.
Collectively, we should be proud that we have been able to protect our communities from another devastating post-Agnes flood catastrophe and the accompanying human misery.
Christopher J. Belleman is executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority.