WILKES-BARRE — Even though the city has claimed financially distressed status in its bid for state help, officials might continue a costly legal fight over funding to extend Coal Street.
And they say it would be well worth the legal costs.
The extension into the downtown has been billed as an important economic development project estimated at $12 million. But the city has yet to locate enough money to cover its share of the cost for lowering the railroad tracks that would cross the roadway and connecting it to North Pennsylvania Avenue.
According to information from a Right to Know request filed by the Times Leader, the city has paid $7,611 to Vinsko & Associates for legal fees in an attempt to stop the distribution of TIF, or Tax Incremental Financing, funds left over from the initial project.
There could be additional legal fees as the city contemplates its next move, said Administrator Ted Wampole.
A judge has already denied an injunction that was part of a lawsuit, he said.
“That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line of what our options are,” Wampole said Thursday.
The suit is still pending and for that reason “We’ve not pulled the plug on it.”
A call to former city attorney Bill Vinsko was not returned. But Wampole said he spoke to Vinsko, who deferred comment on the ongoing litigation to the city.
Vinsko’s Wilkes-Barre law firm was hired in February to handle the TIF matter. He agreed to drop his rate to $150 an hour from $350.
On Wednesday, Wampole and Mayor Tony George testified at a public hearing at City Hall by the state Department of Community and Economic Development to determine if Wilkes-Barre should be declared distressed under Act 47 and made to follow a recovery plan to stabilize its finances.
Wampole defended the use of city funds to cover the legal costs of the TIF and the Coal Street extension.
“The project is absolutely 100 percent worth pursuing,” he said Thursday.
The city ran into a dead end in June when a judge denied a preliminary injunction to block the release of the TIF money to the county, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and Wilkes-Barre Township. They contributed real estate revenues into the TIF for infrastructure improvements on Coal and Mundy streets and Highland Park Boulevard.
The city sued, claiming it was a party to the project and completion meant the Coal Street extension in the second phase. The nearly $3 million in leftover TIF money would cover the city’s share of overall costs, most of it to be paid by the state.
Wampole said the city is still looking for funding sources and plans to meet soon with state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, to determine if money the state has for railroads can be used for the project.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.