News Column

2014 county finances on track, Lawton insists

August 20, 2014

By Jennifer Learn-Andes, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Aug. 20--Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton publicly vowed Tuesday to close out the year spending less than the county brings in.

He even upped it up a notch, projecting the county will end up with $742,000 in the bank after factoring in unbudgeted revenue from mortgage foreclosures.

Council members have been eager for a financial status since an audit released in April concluded the county spent $7.4 million more than it collected in 2012. A report card on 2013 won't be released before September because that audit is late.

To be sure he heard correctly, Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski asked Lawton during the mid-year report Tuesday: "We are going to be balanced?"

"This year in 2014? Absolutely," Lawton said.

Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck zeroed in on revenue, pressing Lawton and Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz on the likelihood of collecting this year's remaining $17 million in expected receipts.

The administration projects revenue of $125.4 million, and $108.6 million was received as of Tuesday.

Collections from property taxes, both current and delinquent, are "performing great," Lawton said. The county received $95.8 million of the $100.5 million expected from this year's taxes and $5.6 million of $9 million anticipated from back taxes, according to one of several reports released Tuesday. Several back-tax auctions have been scheduled before the end of the year.

The bulk of the remaining $17 million will come from contractually required state and federal reimbursements, he said.

Lawton said he is confident in his prediction because he grilled division heads, court officials and the elected controller and district attorney about their realistic expectations on revenue and spending. The result of their collective surpluses and deficits was a leftover of $742,000.

Lawton credited "very strict controls" on hirings for the ability of some departments to come out ahead despite revenue that's not meeting anticipated targets.

In light of citizen predictions the county will experience cash flow shortages, Council Chairman Rick Morelli asked if the timing of remaining receipts will coincide with upcoming bills for payroll and debt service.

The county owes $27 million in debt repayments in November and around $1.5 million in payroll every two weeks in addition to other expenses.

Swetz said some of the state and federal reimbursements may not arrive until the end of January or early February, but the administration is monitoring cash flow and has been trying to space out bills so payments are covered. The administration may temporarily borrow from other county funds if necessary, which has happened in the past, because the county has no reserve, he said.

Lawton made it clear the mid-year review focused on this year's budget and said he can't forecast next year's projected revenue and expenses until he presents the proposed 2015 budget to council by Oct. 15. He warned council health insurance and pension costs are expected to rise next year.

County taxes increased 8 percent this year. Council has final say on the budget under home rule.

In other business at Tuesday's work session, council continued to debate what projects to include in a capital budget that must be adopted by Sept. 1. The county submitted $18.6 million in proposed projects for the county's remaining $16 million in past-borrowed funds.

Council will vote next week on proposed amendments, including the removal of $3 million for infrastructure repairs at county-owned Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township.

Council also met in closed-door executive session to review proposals to purchase three county properties -- the former Valley Crest Nursing Home in Plains Township, the former Springbrook Water Co. on North Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre and a former downtown Hazleton bank building purchased for a southern annex that never materialized. The county received one offer for the Hazleton property and three each for the others.


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Source: Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, PA)

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