Wilkes-Barre Adopts $50.4 Million Budget

December 7, 2018 GMT

WILKES-BARRE — City council on Thursday adopted Mayor Tony George’s $50.4 million budget proposal for 2019 and authorized the administration to submit a controversial state grant application on behalf of the downtown movie theater.

Councilwoman Beth Gilbert cast the sole vote against the budget, previously citing George’s failure to fund the replacement of at least seven firefighters who retired this year. Councilmen Bill Barrett, Mike Belusko, Mike Merritt and chairman Tony Brooks voted in favor of the spending plan, which includes a $10 hike in the annual recycling fee but no tax increases.

Merritt joined Gilbert in voting against authorizing the submission of an application to the Commonwealth Financing Authority for a $500,000 Local Share Account grant that would help fund about $3 million in renovations to R/C Wilkes-Barre Movies 14 on behalf of Regal Cinemas after some city residents spoke against it during public comment.

LSA grants are funded by taxes on casinos in Pennsylvania.

Real estate developer Joe Amato, who owns the theater complex property, has said he and Regal would cover the remaining costs of renovations that would make the theater more competitive with Cinemark in Moosic, which has luxury-lounger seating. He feared Regal would not renew its lease in 2020 if some public money wasn’t contributed to a theater-upgrade project.

City Administrator Ted Wampole said the application is “a tough one to turn down” from an economic-development standpoint. He also noted that the city is applying for LSA grants to fund the purchase of an aerial ladder fire truck costing $1.2 million and renovating the second floor of the public works building for an emergency response center at a cost of $384,966.

Several nonprofits are also asking the city to apply for LSA grants on their behalf.

Grant opposition

Resident Sam Troy noted that the movie theater property is exempt from most taxes until sometime next year because it’s located in a Keystone Opportunity Zone. “To me, it’s a typical scheme of a multimillionaire trying to become wealthier,” he said.

Resident John Suchoski said the state awarding a grant to Regal would be “corporate welfare.” He also asked council not to approve LSA grant application submissions for anything other than the ladder truck, reasoning that if the administration submitted no other applications, “you have a better chance of getting a single thing (such as) this fire truck; the fire truck should be a priority over everything.”

After reading off a list of LSA grants awarded to the city and entities in the city over a number of years, resident Ian Hughes said the grants “are supposed to improve the quality of life for our citizens. At what point does this touch my neighborhood? ... There’s no trickle-down coming to our neighborhoods because of the movie theater.”

Noting that he disagrees with “corporate welfare,” Brooks said he thinks it would be “very short-sighted and not in the best interest of Wilkes-Barre to block somebody from applying” for an LSA grant. He said even if the administration applied only for a grant for the fire truck, there’s no guarantee the city would get any funding.

Gilbert said it wasn’t an easy decision for her to vote against the theater grant, but it’s not “council’s job, necessarily, to rubber-stamp them just because we don’t get the final say (on grant approval). The fire department needs an aerial truck. The theater doesn’t need new seats at the moment.”

Gilbert said installing luxury-lounger seating at the theater is the primary focus in applying for the grant, based on her conversation with Amato. “RC Theaters is a national corporation; they don’t need an extra $500,000 from the state. ... Us not approving it is not going to be the demise of the movie theater.”

Council approved submission of the movie theater grant by a 3-2 vote and unanimously approved submission of all other LSA grant applications.

Increasing golf fees

Council also voted on first reading to implement a new fee schedule for Hollenback Golf Course next year, with Gilbert casting the lone vote against the initiative. Earlier this year, she voiced concerns about raising golf fees for city residents and league players.

Council members considered implementing three different versions of a new schedule this past spring, but ultimately held off after golf course employees said they wanted time to familiarize themselves with new sales software before the new fees go into effect.

Council members also wanted to postpone a vote until they had a more accurate picture of revenues, expenses and play during the 2018 golf season that the new sales software would provide.

The only difference between the schedule proposed in April and the newest proposed schedule is that the newest one includes smaller increases to the weekend and holiday green fees. The new fee for nine holes would be $14 instead of $15; and the new fee for 18 holes would be 15 instead of $17. The current fee is $10 for nine holes or 18 holes.

In other business, council unanimously approved:

• The sale of the Park and Lock East garage to the city parking authority for $1.55 million.

• Reappointment of Charles Majikes to the municipal authority that oversees operation of the Wilkes-Barre Golf Club in Bear Creek Township.

• A three-year contract with EHD Insurance to administer the city’s workman’s compensation plan for $42,500 annually.

• Renewal of the Downtown Business Improvement District, with Diamond City Partnership as the management association, for a 10-year term.

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570-821-2110, @MocarskyCV