Lawton flexible on big, bond-funded projects

June 25th, 2015 4:39 am

First Posted: 7/17/2013

Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton told county council most of his plans to spend the rest of the county’s $14.4 million in past-borrowed funds are not set in stone.

“These are the projects for which bond funds are earmarked at this time,” Lawton said.

The bond-funded projects in his capital projects budget presented to council include reconstruction of the rear courthouse parking lot and grounds, construction of a record storage facility and replacement of the courthouse roof — the final project needed to stop leaks damaging the interior of the historic structure.

During a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday, Kingston resident Brian Shiner urged county officials to cancel some of the projects on the list, such as the records facility. The county won’t be in a position to borrow for many years and should keep the money for emergencies that might arise, he said.

“This is a very lofty plan,” said Shiner. “I think it’s a little too expensive for our county at this time.”

Lawton said some of the work might not materialize through 2015 as projected, but he wants to keep the money programmed for specific purposes. He pointed to the decision of prior administrations to give county-borrowed funds to local government and community organizations, which he described as “the big giveaway.”

“We’re not in a rush to spend these funds, but we do need a way to propose uses and keep track of earmarks and not just leave a big sack of money just like in the cartoons with a dollar sign on it and a rope on the top,” Lawton said.

The county must repay $330 million in borrowed funds — $430 million with interest and fees — through 2027, he said.

Council members have expressed an interest in using savings or unexpected revenue to pay down the debt sooner.

Instead, Lawton said Tuesday both he and the county’s financial advisers believe excess funds should be placed in a reserve fund to demonstrate the county’s ability to save, which should help the county’s quest to obtain a credit rating needed to refinance debt to lower interest rates. “Then we will have a chance to take a big bite out of the debt,” Lawton said.

Councilman Eugene Kelleher asked Lawton what capital projects he would pursue if the county had its “financial house in order.”

Lawton said he would invest in improvements at county-owned Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township. “I’ve said this before. That should be the people’s country club,” he said.

He also would build a new county prison to replace the aging, five-story structure on Water Street, Wilkes-Barre, which requires more staffing and maintenance than a modern facility. “It will save us money on operating costs and would be a safer place for our staff to work,” he said.

Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry said she recently visited three cities and they all took “great pride” in recreation for residents and visitors. “If we can find savings and restore Moon Lake Park to become the gem of this county, I think that would be a very worthwhile endeavor,” she said.

Council must adopt the capital plan by Sept. 1, according to the home rule charter. The plan is posted on the manager’s page of the county website,