In response to a council member inquiry, Luzerne County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo has issued a legal opinion that the manager — not council — has authority to decide which municipalities will receive $15 million in infrastructure grants.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban, who raised the issue at the Sept. 11 council meeting, said he still believes the elected council should approve the projects. He plans to contact the federal government for an opinion.
County Manager C. David Pedri has said he would proceed with the awards based on the solicitor’s opinion.
The money comes from a business loan fund that is no longer in high demand and cannot be used for county general fund operating expenses, officials said.
County administrators announced in February they would be providing grants because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, has been encouraging community development offices to reprogram large pools of unused funds instead of allowing the money to continue sitting unused in the bank.
In a memorandum emailed to council Wednesday, Crocamo said the county’s customized home rule charter, which took effect in January 2012, says council has the authority to make appropriations and/or adopt and amend county budgets.
“The charter is devoid of authorizing county council to distribute grant funding,” she wrote.
Crocamo pointed to another section of the charter that “specifically grants” the manager the power to represent the county in matters related to economic development.
The federal funds being awarded fall under the category of Community Development Block Grants, known as CDBG funds, she said.
“No federal statute or regulation related to these grants mandates, designates or authorizes a local legislative body to distribute these funds,” Crocamo wrote.
These funds can be used for eligible activities only, such as street, sewer, fire protection, recreation and flood facility improvements.
In addition, the projects must meet one of three national objectives — benefiting low- and moderate-income people, preventing/eliminating slums or blight, and fulfilling an urgent need.
Following these guidelines, an administration committee reviewed all applications and recommended awards to the manager, said Crocamo.
The committee members included: grant writer Michele Sparich, acting planning/zoning director David Skoronski, community development executive director Andrew Reilly, community development municipal projects manager Mark Hurst and administrative services division head David Parsnik.
Urban said Wednesday he believes elected officials should weigh in because they are ultimately responsible for the funds.
The administration could present its recommendations to council as it does with annual capital plans, Urban said.
“Where’s the opportunity for the public to weigh in on this?” he asked.
Some employees have privately questioned the 11-member council’s ability to reach majority agreement on outside awards.
Instead of fully funding a few projects last October, a county council majority allocated equal shares of its $70,782 in leftover natural-gas recreation funding to all 16 who applied for it.
County Councilman Robert Schnee had proposed the equal allocation approach after predicting he and his colleagues could spend hours debating the merits of each request and still be unable to reach majority consensus.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.