Scranton mayoral hopefuls focus on progress

Scranton mayoral hopefuls focus on progress

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MULLIGAN

COURTRIGHT

As he runs for re-election, Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright boasts he produced more progress fixing the city’s finances in his four years than the city has seen in the last 20.

Courtright points to the city’s possible exit from financially distressed status in three years, a no-tax-hike budget this year, another planned for next year, large-scale street paving, new and more cost-efficient streetlights, planned park modernization and other accomplishments.

“I think we’ve done a good job over the last four years,” Courtright, a Democrat, said. “I think the people understand that.”

Where Courtright sees a new dawn, his Republican opponent in the Nov. 7 election, attorney Jim Mulligan, sees vast potential for more darkness.

If lawsuits challenging the city’s rental registration and garbage collection fees and its collection of income and other lesser taxes force the city into millions of dollars in refunds, the city could face a renewed financial crisis worse than before, Mulligan said.

“I don’t believe he’s fixed anything,” he said of Courtright. “I think he’s kicked the can down the road.”

This is their second campaign for mayor against each other. Courtright beat Mulligan in 2013, by fewer than 10 percentage points, although Mulligan didn’t enter the campaign in earnest until August because he replaced a candidate who withdrew.

They agree most on two issues that have nothing directly to do with the way city government operates.

Both believe Lackawanna County should reassess all the land and buildings across the county because that would make taxation fairer. They also said they think Scranton School District’s potential $40 million deficit could undermine the city’s progress. Both promise to help in any way they can, although Mulligan offers the only concrete proposal — sharing purchasing and other services. He said his plans to revive the city’s economy will help the School District, too.

Any political debate in a Scranton election starts with the city’s finances — just as the city marked its 25th anniversary in state financially distressed status. For the first time since assuming the label in 1992, a mayor can actually claim its end is near.

The Pennsylvania Economy League, the city’s financial recovery coordinator, said the city’s finances are healthy enough that Scranton can shed the label in 2020, if things stay on an improving path.

In interviews, Courtright deflects the credit for that to his staff and advisers, but takes credit as he campaigns.

When he took office, the city’s credit stood in tatters with banks charging high interest rates for any borrowing if they agreed to lend at all. The city pension funds faced increasing annual payments to its severely distressed pension funds that could cripple finances.

Two major transactions — both necessary to rescue the city from financial disaster — helped improve the city’s financial picture, Courtright said.

The sewer authority voted to sell its sewer system to Pennsylvania American Water Co. for $195 million, netting the city as much as $83 million. The city also worked out a complex deal to put its parking authority’s garages under the control of a nonprofit corporation that now runs them and refinanced the parking authority debt at a lower interest rate.

Without the sewer deal, the city faced turning over control to a state receiver, who would impose massive tax hikes, the mayor contends.

The deals didn’t solve all the city’s problems, but helped the city regain financial stability that paved the way for refinancing high-interest debt and freed up money to help pay for bonds sold to pay off a $30 million police and firefighters contract arbitration award, Courtright said.

About $22 million remains to help the city’s ailing pension systems, but the city is withholding it from its pension funds until it hires a third-party administrator to oversee disability pensions.

Courtright said the city’s improved financial picture allowed the city to produce the largest paving program in history, to buy new tanker fire engines and a new ladder fire truck, to replace numerous decaying police cars and to fix or plan to fix firehouses badly in need of repairs.

“The roads are in the best shape they’ve ever been, I don’t think anybody can deny that,” Courtright said.

He claims the city has managed to attract 70 to 100 new small businesses his first three years in office.

To fight blight, he said, city inspectors write waves of “quality of life” citations for nuisances such as overgrown or unsightly dirty lots and the city joined Lackawanna County’s land bank to revive run-down, tax-delinquent properties.

In his next term, he promises more street paving and continued cooperation with the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce and local colleges and hospitals to create jobs. He said he believes shedding the distressed label will boost the city’s economy.

“Who wants to come to a city that’s labeled distressed?” Courtright asks.

He promised to renovate the Pine Brook and Novembrino swimming pools, turning the Novembrino pool into a splash park; and to ask the county for help in maintaining Nay Aug Park because many non-city residents use it.

He also wants to tear down more dilapidated homes, but said money for that is limited.

As he walks door-to-door campaigning, Mulligan sees the dilapidated, condemned homes and wonders why Courtright isn’t doing more about them, considering the way they depress property values.

He rips the mayor for raising taxes 26 percent in his first two budgets, but will not promise that he won’t raise taxes, too.

“I’m not ruling it out,” Mulligan said. “I mean it’s obvious that it’s something that has to be considered, but the people of Scranton cannot afford to pay any more taxes.”

To avoid tax hikes, Mulligan promises to work hard on economic development that attracts new home and business owners and jobs that will produce more in tax revenues and helps fix the city’s finances permanently. He wants to reduce the city’s business privilege and mercantile taxes that drive businesses to suburban communities. He said he thinks the city should be booming.

“Why is it happening in Pittsburgh, Seattle, a whole host of other cities? Because there’s an urgency,” Mulligan said. “They’re aggressive in pursuing some of these companies. We have all the assets we need, we have the University of Scranton, we have Marywood University, we have Lackawanna College. We have the medical school, we have a great highway system. Plus, we’re located within 300 miles of 30 percent of the United States population.”

He wants to work with the chamber to woo suppliers for the shale gas industry to Scranton and West Coast companies that want an East Coast presence.

“We need to start bringing people to the city to start buying homes, paying taxes, raising their families, but that happens only if they have good-paying jobs,” he said.

He criticizes the mayor’s sewer and parking authority deals. Mulligan said he never would have sold the sewer authority and criticizes Courtright for hiring his top campaign contributor, attorney Edwin “Ned” Abrahamsen, and other contributors for legal advice on both deals in violation of the city’s administrative code, which requires seeking proposals for the service first.

“There’s going to be bidding,” Mulligan said. “There’s going to be transparency, press conferences. Work with city council. Open up City Hall to the taxpayers.”

Courtright argues he didn’t violate the code because the authorities paid the lawyers.

Mulligan said he would have sought a private company to manage the sewer authority to help solve the city’s financial woes.

The sewer authority looked at similar deals and rejected them as less favorable than the sale. Courtright pointed to the early 2000s, when the city tried private sewer authority management only to give up on that.

Mulligan promises to ask banks and other institutions to contribute to paying for widely missing street signs; to seek creation of a regional stormwater management authority with neighboring towns to manage storm sewers left after the sewer deal; and an amnesty program for people struggling to pay millions of dollars in uncollected delinquent property taxes and garbage collection fees.

He vowed to modernize the city’s licensing, inspections and permits by adding online and credit card payment options and moving its offices to the public works building. That way, he said, contractors can stop by to get building permits without struggling to find a place to park.

Mostly, Mulligan said, he will provide the leadership that Courtright doesn’t.

“Leaders don’t stay on the sidelines and watch the future of a city unfold,” he said. “They step up and shape the future of the city.”

The mayor’s seat is for four years with a $75,000 salary this year.

Contact the writer:

bkrawczeniuk@timesshamrock.com;

570-348-9147;

@BorysBlogTT on Twitter

 

Name: James T. (Thomas) Mulligan Jr.

Political party: Republican

Age: 60

Address: 1033 Electric St.

Family: Wife, Tara; sons, Tyler, Hunter, Will, Max, Tucker and Finn; daughters, Phoebe, Lily and Zoe

Education: Riverside High School, 1975; bachelor’s degree, criminal justice, Penn State University, 1980; master’s degree, public administration, Villanova University, 2012; law degree, Antioch School of Law, 1987

Employment: Lawyer, Mulligan Law Firm

Experience: Lackawanna County assistant district attorney, 1989 to 1992 and 2015 to 2017; city solicitor, Mayor Jim Connors, 2001; Riverside School District, solicitor, 1999-2002; co-solicitor, Scranton sewer authority, 2005-2012; Mulligan Law Firm, lawyer since 1987; adjunct professor, Marywood University, criminal justice, 2008; former owner, Recycling Environmental Group, a tire recycling group; former owner, Montage Dry Cleaners, Old Forge

 

Name: William Leonard Courtright

Political party: Democrat

Age: 60

Address: 126 Ridgeview Drive

Family: Wife, Mary Kim; sons, Bill and Patrick; daughter, Lindsey

Education: West Scranton High School, 1975

Occupation: Scranton Mayor and owner of Summit Karate Club, Scranton

Experience: Trane Corp., 1975-1993, technical service manager when company closed in 1993; former office manager, Allied Medicare Supply; owner, Summit Karate Club, 1980 to present; member, Scranton Civil Service Commission, 2000-2002; member, Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, 2003-2012; member, Scranton City Council, 2004-2010; Scranton tax collector, 2010 to 2014; mayor, 2014 to present

Source : http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/scranton-mayoral-hopefuls-focus-on-progress-1.2258771

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