SECOND TERM BRINGS FRESH CHALLENGES
Scranton mayor looks to devote more time to quality-of-life issues
SSTAFF WRITER cranton Mayor Bill Courtright’s priorities for his second term will focus on finances, economic development, parks and paving. Re-elected last week to another four-year term that begins in January, Courtright said in an interview Tuesday that his administration will continue working on improving the city’s finances and hopefully achieve a successful exit from state Act 47 distressed status before the term ends.
Courtright’s first term was marked by several major undertakings — paying a big arbitration award long overdue to police and firefighters, leasing the parking system to fix a prior debt default and restore creditworthiness, and selling the sewer system for tens of millions of dollars to reduce debt and stabilize pensions. With those big initiatives done, Courtright aims in a second term to tackle quality-of-life issues.
‘I’m hoping the commissioners respond to my letter . ... I really don’t care to sue another government entity.’ Mayor Bill Courtright
“Going forward, hopefully we’ll be a little more proactive than reactive,” the mayor said. “One thing I want to work on that I didn’t have much of a chance to work on is parks.”
He plans to convert the closed Novembrino pool complex in West Side into a splash park, renovate Crowley Park in Green Ridge, create a pocket park on a vacant lot downtown at Wyoming Avenue and Linden Street, and restore the closed treehouse at Nay Aug Park.
Ramped-up road paving — a highlight of his first term that resonated with residents — will continue apace, he said.
“We’re going to try to do as many roads as possible,” Courtright said.
On finances, Courtright cited as an achievement restoration of a credit rating, and he hopes for an even higher grade. Good credit ratings translate into lower interest rates on borrowing. When Courtright began as mayor in 2014, the city had not had a credit rating for years. In 2016, his administration’s recovery efforts led to a credit rating of BB — a relatively low grade, but better than none at all. In August, the rating notched higher, to BB+, just below the start of investment-grade ratings.
He also aims to continue the downtown’s rebirth. Its evolution has included the conversion of several former office/retail buildings into apartments, the ongoing transformation of the Marketplace at Steamtown under a new owner, renovation of several rundown vacant buildings for other uses, and a burgeoning cultural scene with events regularly drawing large crowds to streets, shops and restaurants.
Earlier this year, the mayor and a downtown advocacy organization called National Resource Network launched a downtown improvement plan that calls for using tax incentives and similar tools — as well as renovating and repurposing old buildings — to make them more attractive to buyers and planting trees and other greenery in downtown areas. Creating a pocket park at Wyoming Avenue and Linden Street fits into this vein, he said.
“We have so much explosion downtown, every developer tells me they can’t renovate these apartments fast enough,” Courtright said. “We want to continue the economic development in downtown, but you need some green space for these people. So we want to continue working on that.”
Council President Joe Wechsler, who lost in the primary election this year and will be departing council, believes the administration and council’s work and cooperation over the past four years will make for a smoother road ahead.
“The last four years, we had to do all the financial work to get people interested in us again,” Wechsler said. “The groundwork that has been prepared now will bear fruit. There’s just a lot of good things happening.”
Challenges to come
But challenges remain. The sewer sale completed in December put the city squarely on the hook for stormwater management. Earlier this year, the administration hired a consultant to do a preliminary stormwater management analysis that remains pending.
The city also faces potentially serious fiscal hurdles from separate, pending lawsuits, including one challenging the city’s unlimited taxing ability and another questioning the legality of disbursements of sewer-sale proceeds. A loss of one or more such lawsuits could cost the city tens of millions of dollars. Courtright and Wechsler expressed confidence that the city will prevail in these lawsuits.
Courtight’s second term may involve another lawsuit — except this time with the city as the plaintiff, suing the Lackawanna County commissioners to force them to do a countywide property tax reassessment. Voters in the Nov. 7 general election overwhelmingly rejected a null and void countywide ballot question on a property tax reassessment. Commissioners Laureen Cummings and Patrick O’Malley oppose a reassessment, while Jerry Notarianni supports one.
On Thursday, Courtright sent a letter to the commissioners asking them to conduct a reassessment, or the city may sue to force them to do so.
“I’m hoping the commissioners respond to my letter,” Courtright said. “I hope that we can sit down and talk and find a solution. I really don’t care to sue another government entity.”
The mayor’s cabinet of department heads will mostly remain unchanged, he said. Only one member so far has departed: former Business Administrator David Bulzoni, whose last day was Friday.
Courtright praised his cabinet, noting there was no luxury of time for a learning curve during the start of his first term, which he had described as “baptism by fire.”
“We had to sink or swim,” Courtright said. Contact the writer: email@example.com; 570-348-9100 x5185; @jlockwoodTT on Twitter
‘The last four years, we had to do all the financial work to get people interested in us again. The groundwork that has been prepared now will bear fruit.’ Joe Wechsler Departing city council president
Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright on Tuesday at his City Hall office.
Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright discusses plans for his second term Tuesday in his office at City Hall.