Cash comes from $113M in federal American Rescue Plan funding

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Luzerne County Council voted Tuesday to use $4 million of its $113 million federal American Rescue Plan funding for work at the prison and information technology department, but it tabled decisions on allocations for a small business/nonprofit grant program and inspection of the county-owned Firefighters’ Memorial Bridge linking Pittston and West Pittston.

A council majority also postponed a decision on a proposed May 17 primary election ballot question that would ask voters if council should have its own solicitor instead of relying on the county’s law office.

American Rescue

The administration had requested an earmark of up to $20 million for small businesses and another $5 million for nonprofits to help them weather financial hardships and insecurity stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Nine of the 10 council members voted to table a vote on the grants, with Tim McGinley as the lone member seeking a vote.

Regarding the Firefighters’ Memorial Bridge over the Susquehanna River, the administration sought up to $750,000 for an inspection of the span that has been closed since early August pending review of a bent eyebar.

Several council members said they live near the bridge and are acutely aware of the traffic jams and harm to businesses caused by the bridge closure. However, concerns were raised about the cost of the study and whether it would be necessary to obtain state and/or federal funds for rehabilitation or a replacement span.

Councilman Kevin Lescavage said he would be more comfortable if the administration can seek a second proposal to see if a lower price is possible for the inspection and cleaning of rust from the pins and eyebars required to make an assessment.

Councilman Robert Schnee questioned if the expenditure will be “throwing money out the window” by resulting in a conclusion that the bridge must remain closed.

County Acting Manager Romilda Crocamo said she will attempt to obtain other pricing and find out whether the county will miss out on funding if it does not complete the inspection. She said the inspection will determine if there is a possibility to salvage the bridge and provide answers to residents.

Nine council members voted to table a decision, with McGinley voting to proceed with a decision.

The IT earmark would be up to $2.463 million and cover a range of hardware, software and services.

It includes a $970,000 virtualization infrastructure upgrade that IT representatives have characterized as urgent.

Council members Stephen J. Urban and Gregory Wolovich Jr. voted against the IT allocation, arguing further discussion is warranted.

After the administration presented further explanation, the other eight agreed the commitment is necessary to ensure services and security are not compromised, with votes from Lescavage, Vice Chairman John Lombardo, LeeAnn McDermott, McGinley, Chris Perry, Schnee, Brian Thornton and Chairwoman Kendra Radle.

McGinley said council would be responsible if the county is in jeopardy because it did not fund vital IT needs.

Lescavage said he requested additional information before the meeting and urged colleagues to do the same before meetings if they have questions. He said the county will be “in trouble” if it doesn’t start some of the IT work now.

At the county Correctional Facility, up to $1.53 million was earmarked for a new roof, fire security system and replacement of two elevators.

Ballot question

A majority held off on a ballot question, in part due to concerns First Assistant Solicitor Vito DeLuca raised about the wording and implications.

Several members said they still support a question but want to make sure it has been fully reviewed, even if it must be delayed until the November general election.

Three council members voted against the postponement: Urban, Wolovich and Lescavage.

In other business, council voted to:

• Introduce an ordinance that would accept Webster Bank’s agreement to charge the county a lower interest rate on approximately $33 million in outstanding debt, which will save the county a net $331,500 over the life of the loan.

The vote was unanimous.

• Return Joyce, Carmody & Moran P.C. to the insurance carrier panel of firms eligible to provide county litigation defense.

Council had barred the firm from handling future county litigation in November 2020 after learning through national media coverage that the firm had filed a motion on the county’s behalf seeking recusal of then-new Supreme Justice Amy Coney Barrett from a case involving ballot-counting deadlines.

In pushing for reinstatement, Crocamo had said the firm is “very responsive,” familiar with the county and had performed “exceptional work for the county” in the past.

Schnee, Urban and Wolovich voted against the reinstatement, with the seven others supporting it.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.