Scranton City Council Meeting, July 1, 2015

Attendees of the July 1 Scranton City Council meeting heard from residents Joan Hodowanitz, Lee Morgan, Ron Ellman, Marie Schumacher, David Dobson, and others. The topics of discussion at the evening’s meeting were the future of Scranton, the Scranton Action Plan, the Fourth of July, the financial state of Scranton, among some other varied issues.

Councilman Rogan announced that Tuesday, July 7, at 6:00 p.m. will be the development and implementation meeting of the proposed Scranton Action Plan.

Councilman McGoff announced the July 9 meeting concerning the Amoroso Plan update caucus, with Henry Amoroso and Mayor Bill Courtright, taking place that evening. Due to scheduling, McGoff explained, the caucus will need to take place at 7:30 p.m. McGoff said that the exact plan on fitting it into the evening’s schedule is uncertain at this time.

Resident Joan Hodowanitz was up to the podium first. She thanked council president McGoff for getting answers to her questions, a “belated thank you,” she elaborated. She explained that she understood council had a limited amount of time and resources to answer Marie Schumacher’s, hers, and other resident’s questions from week to week. Hodowanitz suggested that council bring in college students as unpaid interns, for extra credit, to alleviate some of the pressure. She called it a “win-win” for council, and said they would be surprised by the talents of Scranton college students. She stated that Mayor Courtright has been in office 18 months and that residents should have a firm vision for how he is going to lead the city by now. She hopes that the mayor will consider the benefits of town hall meetings in the future.

Hodowanitz also remarked on one of the PA Auditor General report’s suggestions to shore up the sewer authority to help deal with Scranton’s pension mess, stating that using an eight percent interest rate was “unrealistic.” She believes that with a lower rate, there would be higher MMOs at the end of the year. She critique the city’s late budgets, as she explained that for the 2013 budget, Scranton paid $185,000 in interest and over $200,000 in 2014 because the deadline was missed. Hodowanitz suggested that Scranton residents keep an eye on the budget, as a lot of money was coming out of their pockets. Hodowanitz stated that she hoped the city would start “being concerned” about timely audits.

Ron Ellman told council that he had a Confederate flag that he can donate to council to put behind them, if they wanted. He said people have been coming to council for years with “fresh ideas,” but added that “you people don’t listen,” and that it goes over their heads. Ellman said that is why residents consider participating a “waste of time.” He said he has asked council who paid for something related to Henry Amoroso, but it was inaudible. (This will be edited when Scranton’s website is updated with the council minutes.) He said he never got an answer.

Council president McGoff responded and said, “You have been given an answer numerous times.” Ellman said he was unaware of it, and Councilman Mcgoff shrugged in response. He inquired as to what paying for taxes for many years has gotten him. He listed many issues on his street, such as the absence of a streetlight, sidewalks in need of repair, and several others concerns. He cited a dispute with a businessman who has been a nuisance in his area. He made noise and parking complaints, and stated that his business is in Avoca. Ellman said he had brought his complaints to Sweeney from the license bureau, who called to tell Ellman he would do something about it, but was ignored. He counted seven to eight times that he called Sweeney back for a progress report, but got no response. Ellman explained that he had access to a law firm, but that takes a lot of time, so he guesses he has to wait. He said it seemed like that’s the way that everyone does things in Scranton.

Resident Lee Morgan again painted a bleak picture of the status of the city. He said he had a conversation with a lady who has been trying to sell a house in the city for two years, and no one wants to look at it. He said, “People are stakeholders on Scranton; they’re tied to the stake.” He regaled a time in the past where Scranton council removed “Mellon” and hired someone who lost the pension a ton of money. Morgan asked “Should people have to fund pensions?” He said the council and city should be taken to court and have their assets seized, and maybe then they’d listen. Morgan spoke of “Super Voters” that he said always come out to vote. He suggested that perhaps some of them are “drinking magic Koolaid,” and voting for people for whom they have no idea what they will do once in office. He asked, “Why aren’t they here asking questions?” Morgan said that a “representative republic can’t stand without participation of the people.” He directed the meeting attendees’ attention to the condition of residents’ lives in the city, and he asserted that a lot of people are on government funds and welfare. Councilman Rogan and McGoff are old enough to remember Scranton having manufacturing jobs, he said. Morgan stated that “government here has lost its loyalty to the people that elected them.”

Dave Dobson again called on residents to call Congress and the President, and gave out their office numbers. He said fast-track trade bill authorization has been passed. Dobson asked that they call them and tell them: “[We] will primary them if they voted for” it. He regaled how manufacturing jobs used to pay double the minimum wage. He informed Scranton residents that PPL is spraying utility lines, and called on everyone to write a letter to them to “keep the poison out of Nay Aug Park, as there is a power line that runs through the park.” Dobson said that he disagreed about the Pennsylvania Economy League, and that they are doing a good job. He claimed they sanctioned former Mayor Connors when he did wrong. He said the city is asleep at the switch, and the train jumped the track.

Dobson believes that the city can’t keep the status quo, adding that the city needs to keep on people to obtain back taxes, and that they can’t keep raising 22% tax fees when some aren’t paying a dime. Dobson again lodged his concern about selling the sewer authority, and asked, “Will selling the sewer plant cause interest rates to go up down the road?” He suspects that the new owner would expect higher interest rates from customers.

Marie Schumacher came with more questions to the July 1 meeting. She asked, “Is 5c for residential only, or is commercial included?” Councilman Evans said that that item, 5c, was referring to moving pods, specifically on the street. He said they were seeking a provision that you can’t have more than three. He imagined that it covered commercial.

Scranton City Council members offered comments prior to the time for the evening’s motions to be voted upon.

Councilman Wechsler believes the city needs to determine the status of statements regarding delinquent trash bills, and look to filing liens against residents. He says there is an extensive list and a lot of money lost through them. Wechsler said the council needs to figure out what the true dollar amount is, and believes that the city might be able to sell them and that they could become a significant asset to the city. Wechsler noted that the Scranton Fire Department is now accredited, and he hopes that residents will now see a reduction in their fire insurance. He said the council unanimously agrees that the city’s pensions should be moved to the state, and brought in line with today’s standards. He said that they have been looking at these reforms all along, but are waiting on Harrisburg so council can implement them.

Councilman Rogan feels that, over the last few months, everything in the news has been about pension problems. He said there are different interpretations on how they developed. He said that although the Auditor General compiled good presentations, at the end of the day council still doesn’t know who is responsible. Rogan said that they have received unofficial documents from Mayor Doherty. He feels council has waited long enough, and that that they have been sitting and waiting for answers. Councilman Rogan believes that council should compile a list of individuals who might be able to shed light on the matter, and send out letters to each of them for an interview with council. He said that, if necessary, send subpoenas for their attendance. The councilman added that if his colleagues agree he’d like to send them out the following day. He wants to make the interviews public.

Councilman Evans responded to the effect that he agrees with Rogan, but would like to wait for the FBI’s and other investigations to conclude first. Rogan said that council had waited six months, but feels like a year might be the limit. Councilman Gaughan agreed with Evans, that they should wait until criminal investigations conclude. Rogan responded that the Auditor General already finished his report, and again asked how long the council is going to wait. Councilman Gaughan said that he was not an “investigator” or “detective.” Councilman Wechsler added that he was not one either, and was concerned about potential litigation and leaving possibly guilty parties out. He believes council “does not have much to offer,” and should remain “independent.”

Rogan again asked how long the council was going to wait to do something. Gaughan again suggested when the investigation is over, and added that the Auditor General doesn’t have the authority to compel anyone to come forward. He said council should he legal advice first. Council president McGoff said he was completely opposed to any investigations, dubbing them a “fool’s enterprise”. He said that any investigation would just be about casting blame. Councilman McGoff asked, “Is it our duty? If we find out, then what?” He believes that it would take a lot of time, effort, and money, nor does he view the endeavor as productive.

Councilman Evans ended the discussion by starting his comment segment with “Back to a positive note . . .” He said he was taking a break from discussing finances, policies, and Al Boscov. Evans gave prepared remarks about July 4, America, and the American Revolution.

Councilman Gaughan said he received complaints from residents at 723/725 West Elm Street that their house was condemned. He asked the secretary to send a letter of inquiry. A resident from 511 Cherry Street said there was a handicap sign that needs to be taken down because it is no longer in use. Gaughan said Police Chief Graziano is already taking care of it. He also said there is an issue on Division Street between Lucky Run and Lookout Drive, but it is, as yet, unclear whether it falls within the jurisdiction of Scranton City or Newton Township. The councilman is asking DPW to find out if it is the city’s responsibility. Gaughan said NEPA Text Deals agreed to let the city use their technology for free to setup a Scranton version of Citizen’s Connect, an application developed in Boston intended to keep residents in the loop concerning potholes, damaged signs, graffiti, illegal trash, and faulty lights. Also, it would allow residents to report issues with photos to the proper city departments. Councilman Gaughan brought up the idea at the May 7 council meeting, but no further information has materialized until this meeting.

Councilman McGoff said he had nothing to comment on, but wished everyone a “safe and happy Fourth.” He said whether by the Confederate flag or rainbow flag, freedom is defined in many ways.

Council had specific comments on motions 5b and C, 6a, and 7a. On motion 5b, a motion to consider creating the position of police chaplain, Councilman Wechsler and McGoff explained that it was an interfaith board of chaplains, trained by a national board, who would assist in death notification and private counseling, among other responsibilities. They also noted that the actual ordinance pertaining to the position will need to be amended before final passage, which will be done in the coming weeks.

On motion 5c, relating to regulating “portable on-demand temporary storage units,” Councilman Wechsler said that the ordinance would not be necessary if residents exhibited “common courtesy” and were “good neighbors.” He said some of the ordinance needs to be fine-tuned. Councilman Gaughan said the $50 fee was one thing that was in question. Councilman Evans agreed with Gaughan. He stated that council needed to know if the fee was “justified” moving forward. Council president McGoff said it was a matter of “geography” and “proliferation” of the containers listed in the ordinance. He said city was looking to “limit their use,” while helping all citizens.

On motion 6a, and in response to resident Marie Schumacher’s inquiry in the Novembrino swimming pool and other pools, Councilman McGoff said that plans for the swimming pool were still being considered. He said the reason the original plans fell through was that the area did not qualify for the original funds council was seeking because it did not fall under “Promod income.” The project is on hold until adequate funds can be found.

All motions were passed unanimously. For a listing of the motions on tonight’s agenda, go here.

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