Klush, Rooney square off

First Posted: 5/17/2013

A basement meth lab caught fire next door to Gene Rooney’s house on Sept. 26

“It was an eye opener for me,” Rooney said. And it made him want to run for mayor.

Rooney is facing incumbent Mayor Jason Klush in the Democratic Primary on Tuesday.

Donald Yatko is mounting a write-in campaign for the Republican nomination. If he is successful, he will face either Klush or Rooney in November’s General Election. The mayor is paid $3,000 a year.

The optimistic Klush, 36, touted the progress made throughout the city under his first administration, particularly the downtown. Projects like the Riverfront Condominium, the Open Space facility featuring the Boden outlet and new construction of the UFCW Credit Union and the Gilbro project at the corner of William and Main streets.

Ground was broken Thursday for a a 30-unit private residential project on Kennedy Boulevard called the Riverfront Condominium. Open Space is home to the Boden outlet, a high-end women’s clothing manufacturer and it is also used as a public meeting space and reception hall. The UFCW Credit Union opened in a newly-constructed facility on Main Street and the major Gilbro project, currently being contructed, will bring dozens of new jobs downtown.

Klush was quick to point out he was just continuing the progress of past mayors when it comes to downtown development.

But Rooney was quick to point out the administration’s shortcomings, including downtown parking deficiencies, not paying attention to the city’s parks and neighborhoods and excessive spending.

Both candidates agree that neighborhood revitalization should be at the top of the list in the next four years.

Klush already has unveiled the Neighborhood Housing Stabilization and Development Initiative which will make improvements to substandard, deteriorating and unoccupied homes and street crowding which causes the tax base to decline. Sprucing up neighborhoods, acquiring tax sale and foreclosure properties, tax rebates, creating a housing impact team and imposing a moratorium on converting single homes to apartments are all planned.

Klush said one major hurdle to the initiative is funding. He said tax money and fees from downtown development will be directed to help fund that project.

Rooney said Pittston is the highest-taxed city in Luzerne County at 6.85 mills. A mill is $1 tax on each $1,000 of assessed property value. Council raised the city’s Earned Income Tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent as part of the Home Rule measure, which the Klush administration supported.

Rooney said that move will erode the tax base.

“The key to that is young people will not move into the city when they can live in any other town in Greater Pittston and not pay the extra half percent,” Rooney said. “It will erode our tax base, not increase it.”

He said the city is loaded with low income housing, which provides little tax revenue. Additionally, the city has numerous senior housing facilities, which pay no real estate or wage taxes.

He said over half the properties in the city are not owner occupied residential units that quality for the Homestead Exemption under the Home Rule Charter.

He said money needs to be redirected to help revitalize the neighborhoods and parks.

Klush said he has beefed up the city’s zoning and code enforcement by hiring additional personnel, which will identify problem properties in the city and use the city’s enforcement powers to help clean up the neighborhoods.

Rooney, 58, currently the owner of Rooney’s Irish Pub on Main Street, is getting out of the bar businesses. His establishment is being sold to his bartender and her family. His name will come off the establishment and the new bar will be called “The Neutral Zone.” He said the change in the lease is the only obstacle. Rooney said he plans to pursue private detective and security work.

From 1973 to 2006, Rooney had been involved in law enforcement in various positions and departments. He started as an officer in the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Police Department. From 1979 to 2000, he worked in the Peekskill, N.Y., Police Department, starting as a patrol officer, then detective, then sergeant. He worked a year for the Department of Homeland Security before getting into private investigation work. He’s owned Rooney’s since 2009. Rooney has taken classes at Norwich University and Westchester Community College.

Klush, 36, is construction manger at Hadley Construction. He is a 2000 graduate of East Stroudsburg University with a degree in sociology and criminal justice.

Klush defeated first-term mayor Joseph Keating in the 2009 Democratic primary. He touted his hands-on abilities in saving the city money, including helping construct the city’s new salt shed, helping renovate the Open Space and hanging downtown signs and banners, all on his own time and free of charge.

Rooney pointed out his own handyman skills in helping build his bar, one of the first properties in the revitalized downtown.

Rooney said the city needs to stop taking loans, including the $1.2 million low-interest loan that will be used to install an elevator in City Hall and relocate the Police Department to the basement where the former library was located. The terms of the $1,263,700 Community Facility Direct Loan allow for a 40-year repayment at 3.125 percent interest. The loan is being made available by the Rural Development sector of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We just can’t afford that right now,” Rooney said. He suggested spending a fraction of that to install a high-end video conferencing system in a first-floor room that would allow the handicapped or those with disabilities to participated in meetings and hearings held in Council Chambers on the second floor.

“It could be put in for under $10,000,” he said. “There’s saving right there.”

Rooney said there is a serious drug problem in Pittston, evident by the basement meth lab explosion next door to him.

City firefighters extinguished a structure fire next to his home in September and discovered a suspected methamphetamine lab. Two firefighters, including Councilman Joe McLean, were injured as a result of fumes from the fire.

It wasn’t until after the fire was extinguished that crews discovered lithium batteries, funnels, cold medicine, ammonium nitrate, tubing and other chemical evidence of a methamphetamine lab. The fire resulted in the capture of suspected meth cooker Kevin Hall in a nearby cemetery. Hall was free on bail awaiting sentencing in another drug case.

Rooney said his background in policing makes him a good mayoral candidate that will get tough on crime. He hopes to get Pittston officers additional training in investigative techniques and edged weapons training. Edge weapons includes knives, axes and the like.

Klush is running on a ticket with Councilman Michael Lombardo and former Councilman Kenneth Bangs for two council seats and Controller Chris Latona. The group has spent thousands of dollars on the race to date. Rooney said he spent just over $200.

Rooney said the Klush campaign is promoting “a picture is worth a thousand words” with photos of development in the city. Rooney said he has some photos of his own, but is unable to take out ads in newspapers like his opponent. He cited exposed wiring and a lack of outside emergency lighting at the Open Space, building permits that are not on display at construction sites at the Red Mill bar and Pittston Gazette buildings.

Downtown parking is also an issue.

Rooney said downtown parking meters are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities act there are no signs saying when motorists must put money in the meters.

Under the Klush administration, a parking attendant was hired and all the downtown meters were either repaired or replaced. But, Klush said, because of complaints after parking tickets started being issued, that enforcement has been relaxed to “only a few hours a day.” He said the parking authority is now focused on installed self-serve kiosks in the downtown parking lots.

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