Luzerne County Courthouse

Luzerne County Courthouse

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Luzerne County’s newly completed audit determined the county ended 2021 with a $4.8 million budget surplus, county Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz told council last week.

Swetz said the savings stems largely from a high number of budgeted staff positions that were not filled. While vacancies helped the county come out ahead, they also contribute to staff burnout and higher overtime expenses, he said.

County Manager Randy Robertson has said he is striving to make county government an “employer of choice.” He identified employee recruitment and retention as a top priority.

Representatives of Bakertilly, which completed the 70-page audit, will present their findings and answer questions at a council meeting in July, Swetz said.

Councilman Tim McGinley, who chairs council’s Budget, Finance and Audit Committee, commended Swetz and his staff for swiftly compiling information Bakertilly needed to complete the audit before the county home rule charter’s June 30 deadline.

Possible use

Swetz said the administration may propose council earmark at least a portion of the surplus to replenish the county’s capital projects fund.

The county’s proposed annual capital plan, which had to be submitted by June 1 under the charter, did not request new projects because the fund is essentially drained, the document said.

The capital fund came primarily from past borrowing, periodically bolstered with one-time revenue receipts.

Only $276,206 in unencumbered funds are remaining. The administration proposes placing those funds in an emergency building fund to cover unanticipated problems and needs.

Approximately $11 million had been in the fund in 2016, the plan said. Dozens of projects, small and large, have been completed since then, including computer upgrades, building and parking lot repairs, elevator updates, roof replacements, courthouse restoration and security enhancements at the aging county prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre, it says.

American Rescue

Council last week discussed two proposed allocations from the county’s $96.3 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding not yet earmarked for projects.

One project would use $1.86 million to repair and resurface a deteriorated 3.1-mile stretch of county-owned Sweet Valley Road in Ross and Union townships, running from state Routes 4024 to 4016.

County officials have said most of the American Rescue funding cannot be used for road rehabilitation, with the exception of a category known as “lost revenue” that is more discretionary and based on the dollar amount of receipts the county lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately $4 million of $8.9 million is still available in the lost revenue category for council to allocate, officials have said.

Council plans to vote on the road project later this month.

Prison elevators

The second American Rescue earmark would provide an additional $235,000 to replace two elevators at the county prison.

Council had authorized $300,000 in American Rescue funding toward the elevator project in January to supplement $350,000 in county capital funds already earmarked, making $650,000 available.

However, the agenda said Otis Elevator was the only company to submit a bid, and another $235,000 is required.

Several council members requested more information on the cost increase during last week’s work session.

Council Chairwoman Kendra Radle urged the administration to provide responses as soon as possible so council can attempt to vote at its next meeting on July 12.

“We can’t drag our feet on elevators in the prison of all places. It’s a liability to not have safe elevators in the prison. So I agree we need to find out why this hike happened, but I also think we can’t keep delaying this process,” Radle said.

The prison’s two elevators date back to the 1980s. Some repairs were completed after a fifth-floor elevator door swung open at the base in 2016, resulting in the deaths of a correctional officer and an inmate, but officials say the motor system and controls must be updated, largely because replacement components are now difficult to find.

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