W-B Mayor, Opponent Differ On City’s Finances
WILKES-BARRE — George Brown believes city finances have taken a major turn for the worse since Tony George became mayor in 2016, but George says he’s spent the last three years digging the city out of a financial mess and has been making progress. The city’s financial health is a top concern for Brown and George, who are seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor on Tuesday. Brown, a retired businessman, and George, a retired police chief, served four years together on council from 2012 to 2015, when George defeated Brown in the Democratic primary. “I’m very upset about the economic condition of the city,” Brown said recently. “When I was on city council and I left in 2015, we had a bond rating of A- — a very good rating, a rating that you could borrow money on. In three years, the current mayor went from an A- bond rating to applying for Act 47 distressed city status.” George unsuccessfully petitioned the state for distressed city status last year. The secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development said he believed city officials had other alternatives to deal with increasing costs, stagnant revenues and projected deficits. “Our mayor said he had no choice but to file for Act 47 status. I don’t agree with that,” Brown said. George has argued that provisions of Act 47 would have allowed the administration to put a cap on union contract arbitration awards and apply for a no-interest loan to lessen the burden on taxpayers. His administration applied to participate in the state’s Early Intervention Program in his first year as mayor to stave off applying for distressed status. As part of the program, the state paid most of the cost to hire Public Financial Management as a financial consultant for the city. Additional grants helped pay to keep the firm working with the city through the present. George touted the fact that only one of his four annual budgets called for a property tax increase, which he said was no small feat given “the deficit I was left that first year.” While on council in 2015, George said he predicted former mayor Tom Leighton’s 2016 budget was unrealistic and would result in a $2 million deficit. He said the deficit turned out to be $1.5 million, “but we were able to squeeze through that year.” George criticized Brown for supporting refinancing actions while they were on council because “all they were doing was scoops, which was just paying the interest. They refinanced $61 million worth of bonds when I was on council … and I voted against every one of them because most of them were scoops.” George said the city borrowed $31 million to shore up pension accounts in 1998 and then in 2016, Brown and a council majority approved refinancing the debt at $30 million. “How can you have a bond for 18 years and only pay (down) $1 million? What happened was they put the scoop in so they didn’t have to pay (down debt) in that administration and they shipped it to the next administration,” George said. “I said to everybody I’m not going to kick the can down the road any longer, we’re going to do something and get rid of it. We went into the early intervention plan, which is a pre-Act 47, and they told us what to do,” George said, adding that the city now has a reasonable, consistent debt repayment schedule in place for the next 30 years. Brown said he “voted for initiatives and projects I felt would benefit the city” while on council. He said he voted for one refinancing of debt incurred during a prior administration that saved the city over $1 million dollars. “Mayor George forgets that some of the votes were very positive for the city. Mayor George, when he was on council with me, voted against some of (those) projects. I’m very proud of what I did on city council,” Brown said. “Before I cast a yes or nor vote, in my mind I firmly understood what it meant and … decided it was the best thing for the residents of the city of Wilkes-Barre.” Brown criticized George’s administration for being reactive rather than proactive in the failure to collect $785,000 in delinquent residential recycling fees, properly monitor a commercial recycling program and seek reports from hundreds of businesses that could potentially increase the amount of an annual state recycling grant. George said he wasn’t aware that about $600,000 in delinquent fees had mounted prior to his taking office because the collection rate during his term was about 95%. “I can’t control what happened in the past,” George said. “Right now we have (a collection) agency who’s supposed to be looking at that. We’re looking at that agency now because they’re not doing their job, but we’re checking their contract to see what we have to do to get out of it and hire somebody new,” George said. His administration is also making efforts to increase reporting of commercial recycling by businesses and other institutions, he said. Both candidates said more study of city property assessments is needed before they could recommend adopting assessed property values from Luzerne County. A spot sampling showed city property values are significantly inconsistent across the board. Contact the writer: email@example.com 570-821-2110, @MocarskyCV EDITOR’S NOTE This is the second of three stories focusing on Wilkes-Barre’s mayoral candidates’ views on issues facing the city. Today’s story focuses on city finances. The candidates’ views found in this story were shared at meetings with The Citizens’ Voice Editorial Board earlier this month and in other recent forums.