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Democrat Commissioner Candidates Go At It In Lively Debate

May 10, 2019

SCRANTON — The Democratic Lackawanna County commissioner candidates traded charges over reassessment of all county land values as they debated issues Thursday night.

At the League of Women Voters of Lackawanna County debate at the University of Scranton, Commissioner Patrick O’Malley and Debi Domenick, running as a unified ticket, said they oppose reassessment.

Domenick said even the usual scenario in a reassessment would mean higher taxes for a third of county property owners, a scenario that could hurt “the elderly and people who are living on fixed incomes.”

O’Malley agreed, pointing out voters rejected reassessment in a November 2017 referendum.

“The citizens of Lackawanna County spoke,” he said.

George Kelly and Jerry Notarianni, the other candidates and also running mates, showed more ambivalence about the idea, though neither said they support immediate reassessment.

Kelly said he would seek expert advice on “the true impact of reassessment” and a thorough analysis to protect senior citizens on fixed incomes.

Almost three years ago, Notarianni proposed reassessment at a commissioners meeting. He said Thursday reassessment is overdue, but said he prefers waiting until the county court rules on a city taxpayers’ suit that seeks to force a reassessment.

“George and I would be the best possible candidates to do that in an intelligent, logical and efficient way to make sure no one is hurt,” Notarianni said.

Hearing a shift in Notarianni’s opinion, O’Malley shot back, “Commissioner Notarianni was absolutely for reassessment.”

On a question about ensuring the county hires qualified employees who pay their taxes, O’Malley said only the county’s human resources does background checks and interviews to ensure the qualified get hired.

Domenick called for thorough background checks and hiring the most qualified person.

Kelly said he would return to letting department heads interview candidates and concur with hirings “so that we do get the true qualified people and not just someone that knows someone else.”

Notarianni agreed.

“It can’t be someone with political affiliations or because of where they live,” he said.

Without naming her, the question centered on county Chief of Staff Fran Pantuso, who, The Times-Tribune found, owed more than $60,000 in delinquent taxes and trash fees for city properties she owned with her brother at the time the county hired her. Pantuso later removed her name from ownership of the properties.

The tickets also quarreled over the state of the county’s pension system and whether the county has contributed enough money to its pension funds.

For two of the last three years, Notarianni said, the county has contributed nothing, against the advice of the county’s chief financial officer. That could lead to pension shortfalls like Scranton and the Scranton School District face, he said.

O’Malley said the pension fund has three-quarters of the money it needs, with pension overseers believing its investments have done well, allowing the county to avoid raising property taxes by having to contribute more.

“We are financially stable and county government is run well,” he said.

He accused Notarianni of voting against three no-tax-hike budgets.

Domenick said the pension fund is healthy, and she would see that it stays that way while staying within the budget.

Kelly defended Notarianni and accused O’Malley of cutting economic development and road and bridge repair funding.

Toward the debate’s end, O’Malley accused Kelly of acting unethically as county economic development director by trying to buy land off a list of county-owned tax-delinquent properties in December.

Kelly said he did nothing wrong by acquiring five acres in the middle of a mine fire and accused O’Malley of playing politics. He claimed he bought the land to ensure “that no one would come in, get that piece of property and break up” a development project that could mean more than 5,000 jobs.

When Olyphant officials, who wanted to give the property tax breaks, questioned whether Kelly should own the land, he relinquished the property, he said.

Contact the writer: bkrawczeniuk@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9147; @BorysBlogTT on Twitter