W-B Mayor Touts Accomplishments In ‘2017 Year In Review’

January 18, 2018 GMT

WILKES-BARRE — Despite the ongoing financial and management struggles the city faced last year, Mayor Tony George on Wednesday released a “2017 Year in Review” that touts numerous accomplishments during his second year in office. George began by noting the challenges the city faced last year: funding the restoration of the Solomon Creek flood wall and cleanup of an unprecedented blizzard, debt management, fighting blight, increasing business in the city, and recognizing and celebrating the community’s diversity. George noted that he sought funding help from state and federal officials after the flood wall partially collapsed in December 2016 and, later in the five-page review, listed four grants totaling $3.3 million awarded last year for the project. Those Solomon Creek grants were among six others totaling nearly $2.1 million, including $1 million to help GUARD Insurance move its headquarters to Public Square, $600,000 for the George Avenue Streetscape Project and $200,000 to help the city progress to the second phase of its Early Intervention Program, which helps it avoid distressed status. Grants also paid to rehabilitate Weissman Park, plant 52 trees in five parks and along three city thoroughfares, and solve a sanitary sewer problem in the area of South Franklin, Regent, Barney and Waller streets. Quality of life In an effort to address blight and improve the quality of life in the city, code and health inspectors embarked on a new “Takin’ It to the Streets” initiative, visiting neighborhoods and issuing 273 quality-of-life violation tickets. Also, six vacant properties were demolished and nearly 3,000 rental unit inspections were conducted. And, George noted, a “Steps to Start a Business in Wilkes-Barre” guide was created to attract and guide businesses looking to locate in the city. George and his administration celebrated the city’s diversity by organizing an inaugural Multicultural Parade and Festival in August, and the event will return this year in September. The mayor also noted that he kept his campaign promise to close City Hall in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day this past Monday. Members of the Public Service Employees Local 1310 agreed to switch one of their paid holidays to MLK Day. George said that although budgeted spending increased from $47.1 million in 2017 to $49.5 million for this year, he was able to stave off a property tax increase last year by increasing “usage-based service fees.” Council approved his requests to increase the price of city garbage bags by 60 cents and double the parking meter rate to $2 per hour. Public safety George topped a section on the city police department by noting that while the rate of more serious crimes in the city (the category includes aggravated assault, rape, robbery, murder, arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft) increased 1.7 percent, lesser crime decreased by 13.9 percent, for an overall 9.7 percent decrease in crime compared to 2016. He also noted several police department initiatives such as the creation of a Law Enforcement Explorer Post and Club under the Boys Scouts of America by Community Policing Officer Robert Collins, and continuing the Teddy Bear Patrol Program with help from the Lions Club and others. The department also bought a MOBILE ID Live Scan via a grant, as well as metal detectors for the cell block and hand-held units as well. The mayor also reported on fire department investigations, responses and equipment, noting the purchase of a new pumper truck and the continued need for a new aerial ladder truck. Among the health department’s accomplishments were conducting 7,195 inspections and investigations, administering over 2,200 vaccines, provided LGBTQ training programs for city employees and initiating Mondays at the Market on Public Square. Infrastructure, business George also noted several street paving and line painting projects, the replacement and cleaning of catch basins, the cleaning of Laurel Run and Mill creeks, and intersection upgrades. Retrofitting of flood gates is complete on one bridge and work is pending at three others. The mayor said 40 new businesses filed zoning applications last year, including The Dollar Tree Store, Restaurant Depot and IHOP. He also said the city’s positive economic environment resulted in expansion/improvement projects by Wilkes University, King’s College, Children’s Service Center of Wyoming Valley, Kirby Health Center and Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. And he noted that the city clerk’s office worked with Traffic Enforcement to identify city streets designated for permit parking, and that the city’s Code Book of Ordinances was updated to reflect a current and accurate street list. The review did not address the acrimony between the police union and management nor the assessment of police department operations and management that the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association is conducting. George said challenges for 2018 include keeping within budget and increasing economic development. His goals for this year include rebuilding the Washington Street and Division Street bridges and further addressing blighted properties by working with Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis using legal provisions allowed under Act 90 of 2011. Asked the state of the city and how he would grade himself and his administration on their performance in 2017, George said the city is “improving” and he believes their performance earned a “B.” December financial report The city on Wednesday also released the monthly financial report for December, which showed that the city took in a quarter-million dollars more than it spent as of Dec. 31. Spending for most departments came in slightly under budget. But city Administrator Ted Wampole noted there will be several more bills the city can expect for the year, such as snow removal costs, as well as additional revenue payments such as sewer and ambulance fees, state grants and the last quarter of emergency services tax payments. Wampole said that based on December’s numbers, he doesn’t expect the city’s financial picture to be quite as bad as the $300,000 deficit projected in October, but he still expects a deficit. “Our general assessment is that we will come in a little better than what we anticipated,” Wampole said. “It’s tough to say at this point, but I think it’s going to be close.” Contact the writer: smocarsky@citizensvoice.com 570-821-2110 @SteveMocarskyCV