PA: County Council Cuts Funding to Hazleton Public Transit

July 23--Hazleton Public Transit is cut off.

During its meeting Tuesday night, Luzerne County Council voted resoundingly against providing local match funding that would ensure the agency gets grant money from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

County budget and finance division head Brian Swetz reported to council the agency had more than $552,000 in left-over local matching funds in the bank as of June 2013 -- money that could be used to continue operations unhindered without county assistance.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban noted the county is strapped for cash and said one good way to cut costs is to stop funding a city agency that is not at all affiliated with the county government.

"The fundamental question is why are we funding this?" Urban said. "I'm not going to support this anymore. ... Whether they have a surplus or not, I don't think any future funding is appropriate unless they become a part of the (Luzerne County Transportation Authority)."

For years, the county has paid the agency a standard contribution of $150,000, regardless of what PennDOT needed for the local match contribution, county Manager Robert Lawton said. As a result, the agency has been able to amass more than half a million dollars in county funds, he said.

"Because we do it, they don't have to," Lawton said.

Until Tuesday. Council members in attendance voted unanimously against proving $134,346 in match money that would ensure $1.7 million from the state, forcing Hazleton Public Transit to dip into its reserve.

The $509,612 in local match money needed for the LCTA's state funding, meanwhile, passed by a comfortable margin. The embattled authority had been going back and forth with council about funding since the body cut its funding by $316,000 earlier this year in the wake of the "ghost rider" scandal.

Council approved payments of $98,656 in November and $254,806 next May to ensure the authority will receive $5.1 million in grant funding this fiscal year.

Urban, Councilman Stephen J. Urban and Councilwoman Kathy Dobash voted against the funding.

Hazleton Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi and city council President Jack Mundie questioned motives behind county council's decision to withhold funds.

Yannuzzi, who attended county council's meeting Tuesday, was surprised to see the transportation issue listed on the meeting agenda.

"I was really annoyed they did that," Yannuzzi said.

While the county council's decision won't have an immediate impact on services offered by Hazleton Public Transit, Yannuzzi said the local transit department must decide whether it will use money from a roughly $500,000 capital improvements account to provide a match or risk losing state funds.

The downside, he said, is that Hazleton Public Transport intended to use the money to buy a bus.

Yannuzzi asked why Hazleton residents should continue paying county taxes if county council were to deny funding.

"They're telling us to use that money as a match so if we want to get our allocation we're going to have to give it (to the state)," Yannuzzi said. "That will impact anything we're going to do with our capital (budget) and stall us. What are the citizens of Hazleton paying (county taxes) for? They're paying it to the county for some reason, but they're not getting it back."

Mundie, meanwhile, echoed similar concerns and suggested that state officials who had pushed for merging Hazleton Public Transit with Luzerne County Transportation Authority were behind county council's decision.

"That's going to be a big problem," Mundie said. "If we depend on funding from the state, they're going to force us to merge with Luzerne County -- with their transportation authority. It's unfortunate. It's going to hurt the riders and senior citizens who depend on taking the bus."

Mundie said attorney Pasco Schiavo, a few years ago, estimated that Hazleton accounted for approximately 25 percent of the county tax base.

"We definitely don't get 25 percent of the services from the county," Mundie said.

State officials said merging Hazleton's system with the county's could save $1 million, an estimate that Hazleton officials considered overly optimistic.

In other business, a proposed amendment to the county's two-year-old home-rule charter will not make it to the ballot this fall. Council's charter review committee proposed requiring six votes rather than four to introduce a budget ordinance that would change the tax rate before Feb. 15 of a year after an election.

Councilman Jim Bobeck sought the change to avoid a situation the county faced earlier this year -- council held up tax bills with debate over budget changes that ended up not affecting a maximum-allowed 8 percent tax increase.

Councilman Harry Haas said council was "doing our due diligence" by seeking to put the issue on the ballot and let the people decide whether to amend the document.

"This council held up the budget for a month and a half, and it really damaged the cash flow of this county," Haas said.

But Stephen A. Urban countered that even after council finished its budget revision talks, the tax bills were still not ready to be sent out.

"Harry, you're a history teacher but here you are rewriting history," Stephen A. Urban said. "Do you really listen to what goes on here or do you just make things up? I think you make things up."

The ordinance failed in a 5-5 vote, with council members Edd Brominski, Kathy Dobash and Eileen Sorokas joining the Urbans in their opposition.

Sam Galski, staff writer, contributed to this report.

570-821-2058, @cvjimhalpin

Copyright 2014 - The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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