WILKES-BARRE — The city’s misstep delaying work on the Solomon Creek wall project has turned into a campaign issue in the upcoming race for mayor.
Within an hour of each other incumbent Mayor Tony George and his Democratic challenger in next month’s municipal primary, former city councilman George Brown, held press conferences Monday morning a block apart along the creek.
George, whose administration secured more than $10 million in government grants for the project, downplayed the cause of the three-week delay and took a shot at Brown for coming up empty in past attempts for funding.
Since 1998, George pointed out, the city has tried to get money for a comprehensive infrastructure project to replace the stone and concrete wall built in the 1930s that channels the creek through the South Wilkes-Barre and protects houses, businesses, a hospital and schools from flooding as it meanders to the Susquehanna River.
“That was 21 years ago. To wait an extra 21 days is a lot better than 21 years, which the past administrations did nothing with this except for a Band-Aid approach,” George said.
Brown, who attended George’s press conference, acknowledged he and others traveled to Baltimore, Md. in 2015 while he was on city council to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. George, a councilman at the time, declined the invitation to attend, Brown said.
They returned with no commitment of federal money. But, Brown said, the gains this administration made could be washed away by the blunders of George and his point person on the project, Office of Economic and Community Development Director Joyce Morrash Zaykowski.
“The funding could be in jeopardy. If that happens the funding falls on the residents of the city of Wilkes-Barre,” Brown said.
And if that’s the case, should he replace George next year, Brown said, “I’m willing to take on all challenges and any problems, any issues, situations as mayor and I’ll address them.”
The delay was cause for concern for Larry Watkins, who lives in the floodplain of the creek. “If I’m hanging for 21 days, that’s a long time to hang, if you know what I mean,” said Watkins, a Brown supporter.
George and Zaykowski characterized the problem as procedural, resulting from the missed publication of a legal ad requesting public comment for work in a floodplain.
“This was started with the previous director (Kurt Sauer),” Zaykowski said, explaining how the process went awry. George appointed her to replace Sauer and assigned her on the duties of the office in addition to her other job as capital projects program manager.
The city’s environmental review officer, Joe Rodano, followed past practices and felt he followed all the proper steps, but missed one, Zaykowski explained.
“It was an innocent mistake we all take responsibility for. And the most important thing is is we’re not losing much time,” Zaykowski said. “We’re rectifying the situation and we’re going to move on.”
The contractor has stopped working in the creek and switched to retrofitting the flood gates for the bridges, George added.
Sauer: ‘I did it to help’
Sauer, who was among the group of approximately 20 people assembled for Brown’s press conference near the Barney Street bridge, defended himself against the attack from the George administration.
“If they’re going to start throwing stones, they better watch what they throw,” Sauer said.
Since Sauer left in February 2018 the city has relied on him for assistance, he said, showing a reporter text messages from Zaykowski. “I did it to help,” he said. “No more.”
The project should not have been put out to bid until the environmental review was completed, Sauer said. “The environmental is a no-brainer. You do that first,” he said.
The city bid it last year and awarded the job to A.R. Popple Inc. of Wilkes-Barre, the low bidder at $1,548,448. The city pulled him from the job in July 2018 and has yet to explain why. Don E. Bower Inc. of Berwick, the second lowest bidder at $2,071,954 and was awarded the job last August.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, who worked to secure funding through the state Department of Community and Economic Development and other sources, worried the city’s actions could put the project in serious jeopardy.
“However, this will not deter us from working with DCED to get the project back on track to achieve our goal of a comprehensive flood protection system for the residents of Wilkes-Barre,” the lawmakers said in an email.
DCED spokesman Michael Gerber said the city’s noncompliance was discovered earlier this year during routine monitoring of the funding requirements. The city did not publish a public notice as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that awarded a $2,357,000 community development block grant through the Disaster Recovery Program.
“The funding for this project is not in jeopardy as the city is pursuing corrective action,” Gerber said in an email.
The city stopped the project on March 8 and has been working with DCED and HUD. A public notice was published in the Times Leader on April 3 for comments up until April 18. Two more public notices will be combined and published on April 19 with a seven-day comment period. The comments will be forwarded to HUD and pending approval, the funds can be released for the work.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.