Smooth sailing for proposed preservation ordinance in WB

i Oct 23rd 2020
By Jerry Lyott, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE — The historic preservation ordinance had the support of city council and the public Thursday night, but not so for the mayor’s proposed 2021 budget.

Council, in a joint live and virtual meeting , voted 5-0 to approve the first of two readings of the ordinance crafted to protect the city’s historical buildings from demolition and establish a clear process if any of the structures have to be torn down.

The ordinance introduced by council Vice Chairman Tony Brooks maps out the historical properties and establishes a seven-member advisory committee to inventory the properties and recommend to council additions to the map, among other things.

The public support came from near and far.

South Franklin Street resident Joel Zitofsky said he’s been restoring downtown properties since 1978. “I think the ordinance is long overdue,” he said.

Ron Babcock, who grew up in nearby Laurel Run, sent an email from Pasadena, California. City Clerk Jim Ryan read portions of Babcock’s message into the record. Babcock noted that while he was a student at the University of Scranton in 2000 he produced an hour-long documentary on the Hotel Casey in Scranton. It was demolished to make way for a parking garage.

“One of things I learned is that communities who look at their historic structures as opportunities rather than obstacles do better,” Babcock wrote.

Budget in focus

The ordinance cleared the first obstacle without a problem, but the fee increases included in Mayor George Brown’s proposed $53.2 million balanced budget present a challenge to that getting approved. Brown’s plan would not raise property taxes, opting instead to double the sewer and recycling fees to $100 each to raise an estimated $2 million in revenue Brown said he needs to run the city. If council fails to approve the increases, layoffs are an option, he acknowledged.

“I don’t want to do this It’s something we may have to do,” Brown said. “If we have to do it, I’m sorry but we’ll do it the best way we can for our employees.”

Councilman John Marconi was the first to ask for input from the city’s four labor unions in the upcoming budget discussions.

“I would just like to invite all of the union reps to join our November 4th budget meeting. We’re looking for solutions to keep the city going and also to help the residents as well,” Marconi said.

Brooks and council woman Beth Gilbert McBride also issued invites to union reps.

“I believe that there are things that we can still cut back on in the budget without necessarily laying off workers who do their job to the best of their ability,” McBride said. She also said she is against laying off emergency services personnel.

During the public comment period, Lois Grimm of Spring Street phoned in and advocated wage freezes, putting a hold on all non-essential spending, special events and unnecessary overtime.

“We have consistently seen mayor after mayor after mayor put the responsibility of running the city primarily on the backs of taxpayers and we cannot afford it anymore,”Grimm said.

Body cameras, bridge contract

The city has the money to pay a portion of the $391,800 it will cost to buy 70 body cameras and a data storage unit, Brown said. Council approved the purchase from Axon Enterprises Inc. of Scottsdale, Arizona.

The first two annual payments of $78,360 will come from the Police Department and the city will seek grants to pay for the final three payments, Brown said.

Council approved awarding a $311,000 contract to Minichi Construction for the Strauss Lane bridge rehabilitation project. The funding will come from a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Multimodal Grant.

Traffic signal request

Council also approved submitting a request to PennDOT to reinstall a traffic signal at the North Wilkes-Barre Boulevard Exit 2 of the Cross Valley Expressway.

Marconi introduced the resolution and prior to the council meeting he council Chairman Bill Barrett visited the site where the light would go.

Barrett, a former city police chief, said he did accident reconstruction for the department.

“The point being, I know a dangerous intersection when I see one and I’m looking at one right here,” Barrett said.

Marconi pointed out there were no accidents at the intersection when the signal was temporarily in place for a detour for construction of the ramps at Exit 3.

Council, which serves as the Board of Revisions of Taxes and Appeals, met before its combined work session and public meeting. The Board voted 3-2 against reducing the assessed value for OSJ of Wilkes-Barre LLC to $253,000. City assessor John Anstett recommended the reduction and reducing the assessed total valuation of the property where an Ocean State Job Lot store is to $2,750,000 from $3,375,000.