HAZLETON – City council members have unanimously approved a plan they hope will put Hazleton on the path to fiscal health.
The Act 47 Financial Recovery Plan is a suggested spending plan by the Pennsylvania Economy League created after the city entered into distressed status last year.
The distressed designation makes the city eligible for increased assistance from the state, which includes an extensive review of finances, recommendations for future financial stability and assistance in securing grants.
The plan means the city would consider changing its current form of government and would allow it to petition the state to raise its earned income tax.
During public comment at this week’s meeting, both council members and citizens expressed concern regarding the plan and the increased spending that seems to be associated with it.
Councilwoman Jean Mope said she was voting for the plan as a “leap of faith that they will look into every avenue to make the city sound and benefit our taxpayers the most.”
Resident Mark Rabo emphasized the importance of the city using financial restraint.
“I hope and pray every night that the city will again be financially solvent,” he said.
Grace Cuozzo told council that other municipalities deemed distressed, including Plymouth Township, rebounded by implementing sound financial practices and frugality.
Cuozzo, a former council member, alleged the city is instead using its distressed status as an opportunity to continue to spend at the expense of taxpayers.
Meanwhile, city administrator Daniel Lynch told council that an RFP, or request for proposals, had been put out to help the city fund the leasing of four dump trucks, a street sweeper and a backhoe for about $793,000.
According to Lynch, a proposal was received from M&T Bank, which would mean an initial payment of about $105,000 and an annual yearly payment of about $114,000 for seven years.
Mope asked if the city’s distressed designation might qualify it for a reduced interest rate, with Lynch saying he would look into it.
A Uniform Commercial Code hearing that preceded council’s regular meeting brought Todd Houseknecht to the podium to complain about the city code department.
According to Houseknecht, code enforcement officers entered his residence on Diamond Avenue without providing identification, scaring his mother.
Houseknecht told council that he had purchased the property in 2015 with necessary city approval.
“Now, three years later, they’re bringing up various issues,” he said. “The property is in the same condition it was in three years ago. Now, when I’m ready to sell it, there’s a problem.”
Houseknecht also questioned the position of Code Enforcement Supervisor, currently filled by Charles Pedri.
“I find the position nowhere in the city’s personnel information,” he said. “If it is a new position, then it would need to be approved by council – and I don’t see any evidence of that, there was never any resolution or ordinance that created the position.”
Council members assured Houseknecht they would look into the matter.
The UCC hearing, required by the state, will mean that various increases in construction requirements for property owners will now be forwarded to the state Department of Labor and Industry for its review.
“Code needs to apply its requirements uniformly and fairly,” said citizen Rabo. “Code enforcement cannot be used as a weapon and it is now.”