Scran­ton mayor looks to de­vote more time to qual­ity-of-life is­sues

The Times-Tribune - - Front Page - BY JIM LOCKWOOD

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.

Fi­nan­cial achiev­ment

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: jlock­wood@timessham­; 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.

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