2014-05-27 Council Work Session Minutes

TUESDAY, MAY 27, 2014

Council met for a work session on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 in Council Chambers. The work session began at 6:00 p.m.

In attendance were Council President Jack Mundie, Council Vice President Jean Mope, and Council Members Keith Bast, Jeff Cusat, and David Sosar.

Grace Cuozzo, 948 James Street, Hazleton asked how the Stormwater Ordinance can be legal if it was never advertised. She said she pulled the case file from the Prothonotary’s office, and the Mayor’s defense is that Council failed to advertise the Ordinance. She does not feel it is legal to charge a fee for stormwater if the Ordinance was not properly advertised. Mundie said they would put that question to the Solicitor. Sosar said he believes that every single Council member has probably received a lot of phone calls about the stormwater fee. He said when he was on Council in the 1990s, he did not receive nearly as many phone calls about snow plowing after a severe storm than about the stormwater. He said there are a lot of valid questions as the amount charged, how it was computed, the advertising, etc. Sosar stated “…but I am going to say to every single person in the City whose paid or not paid it as of yet, appeal, appeal, appeal it. Make sure that you write in your appeal with every single question you have on the stormwater. I want the Director of Administration to have to answer your questions. I want him to have to deal with, whether it be through a panel or a board that was going to be appointed, or him, according to the bill that has to deal with this, but I want them flooded because they have to answer to you.” He said Council is trying to be clear on everything, and this is not. Sosar said the previous Council realized they could not get the taxes that they wanted, so they created a stormwater fee. If it was a tax, it could be written off, but that is not the case. Sosar stated “So, the City hurts you in two ways. They needed more money, at least they said they wanted more money to do, and they didn’t even allow you the chance to write anything off. So, I would appeal.” Cuozzo asked what budget this fee was in, and where are the expenditures for the billing noted. Mope believed it was in the Mayor’s budget. Sosar said he also believed it was in the Mayor’s budget, but he does not believe the expenditures, such as billing and postage, exist in any budget. Sosar said this is taxpayer money, so the taxpayers need to ask questions. Cuozzo said it does not state that there is a $25.00 minimum fee anywhere in the Ordinance. She said a penalty, late fee, and time frame for payment were also not included in the Ordinance, and those things need to be in there. Cuozzo asked how public parking can be leased to a private company for 10 years. The Parking Garage was built in 1975. Cuozzo said they have the right to lease some space, but not the whole parking lot. She asked “Or is it the contention that downtown is done totally, and it’s only their businesses?” Mope hoped there would be a presentation made about this so that we can get some answers. Cuozzo suggested the old “stamp and park” program. She said the garage is a public garage and she does not believe this is a good idea. Mope said she has a lot of questions about this herself. She said she saw what happened with the south side area through redevelopment. She stated at the time, they probably thought they were making good decision. Mope said she believed this hurt the City because we lost businesses on Wyoming Street plus all the homeowners that lived on the south side of Hazleton. The train station was also removed. She said we also lost a lot of customers. Cuozzo asked why the old Fire Station is also being leased. She said that should be kept for storage, etc. She said there was also a problem with mold in there. Mope said we would have to look into that. Sosar said he did know if the mold problem was rectified, but that was always a problem there, according to some of the firefighters he spoke to. He said the heating that was put into the building may have rectified the problem. Cuozzo said she hoped some of these questions could be addressed. She added that if they cannot be answered at this time, then the Resolution regarding this matter should be tabled. Mope said she would like to have these questions answered, but the individuals who need to answer them do not come to the meetings.

  Dee Deakos, 43 West Mine Street, Hazleton commented on the parking situation in the City. She said in the past there were several public parking lots. There was one at Laurel and Church Streets, because the Intermodal/Parking Garage was built a few years ago, but the parking garage never materialized. So this parking lot “just disappeared.” Deakos said there is a parking lot next to Can-Do, but Can-Do has most of the spaces. There was also parking along Mine Street. She said there used to be a program where you could go to several businesses, get a card stamp, and get free parking in the parking garage. Deakos said the old Deisroth’s building is almost completely occupied. Most of those people who work at and patronize the businesses in this building, park in the Parking Garage. She said two floors of the Parking Garage are dedicated to the Luzerne County Community College. She said if there is nowhere for the students of the college to park, the college may move out of the downtown area. Deakos said it would be bad to lose the college, because we are getting young people to come downtown and realize that it is not such a bad place. She said a lot of other businesses are using the parking garage as well. She said these spaces are going to be leased for a much lower price than what the Parking Authority leases them for. Deakos said a proposal was brought to Council to turn Chestnut Street into a one-way and there would be parking on both sides. She said that making it a one-way was a poor decision. They should have kept Chestnut Street two ways, and have parking on one side. She said the Laurel Street parking spaces are not being used, and the parking lot next to the former Greco building is not being used. Deakos said she understands why they want to have these parking spaces, but it is going to hurt the other businesses in downtown Hazleton who rely on the Parking Garage. She said employees will start parking at meters, and there will be no parking for customers. Deakos said the parking lot next to the Markle Building and her building is only about half full. She feels the parking is being monopolized at the expense of other businesses losing their right to park. She said she was against the robotic garage, but she was not against a regular garage. She said “you’re shifting the haves and have-nots downtown into who gets the right to park.” Sosar said there were always about 20 parking spaces that sat between the old Security Savings building and the old Leader Store building, but that was always chained up. Mope said she believes Greco was not allowed to use it as a parking lot. Deakos agreed with Mope.

Mark Rabo, 8 West 1st Street, Hazleton commented on the stormwater fee. He asked why a public meeting was not held regarding this matter as directed by the DEP Storm Water Management Act. He asked if the former Council or the Administration was aware that Luzerne County has an Act 167 Storm Water Management Plan, which was enacted in June of 2010. He read from Plan 1, Part B of the Act, regarding a municipality’s adoption of this Plan. Rabo said “The Engineering Consultant to the Mayor and the City Solicitor failed to do their homework, and basically enact a fee, which is really just a tax gimmick wrapped in an ordinance.” He said the Solicitor’s Handbook provided by the State of Pennsylvania refers to the exclusions to enforcing the Storm Water Ordinance. He read from part of the Solicitor’s Handbook regarding exclusions to combined storm and sanitary sewer systems tied to existing sewer lines. He said the Solicitor’s Handbook states that these types of systems are not subject to the same rules. Rabo said that all municipalities must comply with the county plan. He asked if this ordinance is in compliance with the county plan. Bast said Rabo is talking about the stormwater management plan, and that is completely different from the stormwater fee. Bast stated that stormwater management is about buildings, wetlands, etc., that are involved. The DEP Stormwater Management Act has nothing to do with the fee that the City is imposing. Bast said he did not know whether the City put anything into place after the Act was passed in 2010, because he was not on Council. Lisa Shema, City Clerk, said Council passed a Stormwater Management Plan in 2011. Bast said he would have to look into it further. He said he taught environmental science for 15 years, and the Stormwater Management Plan is a lot different than the stormwater fee. Rabo asked what the fee was intended for. Bast said he wanted that fee to be able to improve the problems that are caused by stormwater runoff, such as roadways, inlets, etc. He spoke with the Mayor about this, and asked that this money be placed in a dedicated fund to fix the existing and future problems caused by storms. Rabo said what Bast is saying is the intention of the Stormwater Management Ordinance. Bast said he left the wording of the Ordinance to the City Solicitor and the person responsible for writing it. Sosar said if you are going to do stormwater management, then there must be some way to pay for it. He said there should be a dedicated fund for this matter. But, unfortunately, the fee has become “the bone of contention,” and the Stormwater Ordinance itself is not the issue. Sosar stated this money is going into the general fund, instead of into a dedicated fund, which is another reason to appeal. Mope said Council had discussions with the Sewer Authority, and one of the major problems is that the sewer lines in the Terrace section were supposed to be separated. But, unfortunately, the tap-ons were done incorrectly. She said because of that, there was contamination of the Hazle Creek property. Rabo asked why DEP was not contacted. Mope said the City is going to be working on the Button Buck project, wherein a piece of equipment will be placed there to separate the solids from liquids. She said because they were hooked up improperly, there are two sewer lines running through the Terrace and Hilltop areas. She said she believes a grant was received to do this project. There is another area of the City that is going to have the same type of work done because of the same problem. Mope said because of the Button Buck project and the contamination of Hazle Creek, the water from the Terrace and Hilltop was diverted into a ware on Mill Street, which takes it directly to the Sewer Authority. Mope said that trying to determine how many lines are combined and separated was nearly impossible. She had the original engineer’s report and the minutes from the meeting, when it was stated that the system in Hazleton is hundreds of years old and they are all combined. Rabo asked why this was not brought up back in 2010. Mope said she brought this up over the past year up discovering more and more issues with this matter. She said all of this leads to the Sewer Authority, and this is why they have an overload of water coming in. They had a problem with DEP, which they had to deal with, because of all this extra water. She said this extra water was supposed to go to Hazle Creek. Mope said she felt a stormwater fee was not necessary at that time, until the work was done properly, and these issues were addressed. She said we were shown all the inlets and catch basins that were in bad condition throughout the City. She stated we were paying $150,000 every year for sewer inlet and repair work out of the sewer transmission fund. Mope said that after seeing the pictures in the newspaper, the work was not being done and the money was not being utilized the way it should have been. She said she agrees with the people who have a problem with the fees being charged. Rabo asked what the end result is. Mope said she agrees with Sosar as far as telling everyone to appeal. Mope said Bast went into this with good faith, he knew the problems had to be corrected, and he did it with the best intentions. She stated that unfortunately when you start uncovering things, you discover more and more problems. Rabo said under the Stormwater Management Act, once a municipality enacts a Stormwater Ordinance, if the municipality does not comply with the Plan, there are repercussions, such as the withholding of general funding. Mope said Council needs answers from the Mayor, the City Solicitor, and the Administrator. Rabo said the withholding of funds would involve paying the police and fire departments, and running the City. Mope said Council receives no cooperation from the Administration, and that is why they decided to get their own solicitor. She said all of the constituents have questions about this, and Council has no way to reply to them. She added that this is why this Council instituted work sessions, so that these things can come out and be discussed. Rabo suggesting reinstating the Planning Commission, because they are the advisory board that goes before Council. Sosar said that the Planning Commission needs some work, and it is no fault of the good people who currently serve on it, or recently resigned. He said it is a panel that has only be able to meet once this year, because there are only two people left on it. He hoped the Mayor will appoint some good and diligent people, who are concerned about the community and the future of this City. Rabo said “It’s another shelf board, that’s the problem.” Sosar replied that it should not be like that. It should be a board that sees the vision of this City, and is there to determine what goes on in this City. Sosar said this is another reason to challenge the Ordinance. He said we need to get all of the answers that we can, and all of the action that we can, so that we prove to the state that this was done incorrectly. Sosar said all of this comes from leadership, and, unfortunately, too much of this City and too many of the boards, commissions, and authorities are being left to “flounder.” They are not doing what they have been asked to do. Rabo said the City’s infrastructure “tells the whole story.” Sosar agreed. Rabo said that the problem is that there is no Blighted Properties Committee, the Redevelopment Authority does not work, the Planning Commission does not work, and the Zoning Board is “left to its own devices.” Sosar said it does not all come from the Mayor’s office. There are many parts of the City Government that need to work in conjunction with each other for the City to run and move ahead. It does not come from just one office. Sosar said we know where we are at, and what we need to do to move ahead. Rabo said the Nuisance Abatement Board was enacted last week, and is now allowed to be enacted by the City. He said he would like to see the board enacted as soon as possible. Sosar said Council does not know what the Mayor’s thoughts on this are, but Council is an “attentive board.” He said Council is here to do what is best and move the City forward. Rabo said since 2011, the City has had 150 properties go vacant. This is a loss to the City’s tax base, makes more nuisances for the adjacent properties, and it makes more problems for the police and fire departments. Vacant properties left the way they are for a long period of time turn into hazards. Rabo commented that if something is not done immediately, Hazleton will end up like Johnstown, which is called the City of Abandonment.

Norman Tarantino, 154 North Lee Court, Hazleton asked what is the air clearance for building a bridge over the train tracks, and who controls that air space. He asked if this is owned by the railroad company or the City. Mundie said that is probably a legal question that would need to be answered by the Solicitor. Cusat said he believes it is 22½ feet above the tracks. Sosar said that was supposed to have been investigated with Norfolk Southern. Tarantino asked if the railroad company gave permission to build over the train tracks. Cusat said he believes that was taken care of last year, and they had to get a special exemption because there was a six inch difference. He said it was done before the plans went in for the grant. Tarantino said since the project that was supposed to be done on St. Joseph’s Hospital has been put on hold, has anyone checked on the condition of the building. Mundie said he is going to have DeAndrea check into this. Mope said Rick Wech could also look into this matter. Tarantino asked about enacting some “realistic user fees,” such as charging those individuals who are arrested for getting their fingerprints processed. Mundie said that is a good idea, and he will look into it further.

Judy Dowd, Hazleton commented on the Parking Garage. She showed Council chunks of concrete and metal that have been falling down onto the vehicles into the garage. She said this is a daily occurrence. She said they are being charged $55.50 for a parking spot under these conditions. Dowd said now the garage is going to be remodeled and refurbished, and the charge is going to be only $30.00 for those same spots. Sosar said he took a walk with Dowd into the garage back in the spring. She showed them a number of problem areas. Dowd said it is much worse because of the bad winter we had, and the extreme cold. Sosar agreed. Dowd said she can see rust on the steel that is supposed to be holding that garage up underneath. She said it is a public building, but once it is refurbished, only certain people will be able to park there. Sosar asked Dowd if there is any other place she can park besides the Parking Garage. Dowd said her building does not have enough parking spaces for everyone, but the real problem is during the winter. She said that because of the Housing Authority being opposite of the Center City Apartments, the snow ban alternates from year to year on Juniper Street. Chestnut Street does not allow parking on either side. She said she heard that the lot on Chestnut Street owned by the Parking Authority is now going to be all meters. She feels this is unreasonable. Dowd said once the garage is remodeled, a lot of the spaces will be rented out.

Mundie concluded the work session at 6:54 p.m.

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