Luzerne County officials politely peppered seven Pennsylvania legislators with suggestions to help county government Tuesday — most centering on the need for more financial assistance and funding options.
The legislators listened intently and jotted down notes while stressing they can’t make any promises as the state wrestles with its own fiscal challenges.
State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, emphasized that point several times, saying legislators face “obvious challenges” trying to erase the state’s $1.6 billion deficit.
County Council’s legislative committee, chaired by Harry Haas, set up the round-table discussion at the courthouse to discuss concerns face-to-face instead of resorting to the usual approach of sending council-adopted letters seeking action.
Also participating were: state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township; Tom Yoniski, a field representative for state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township; and five state representatives covering other parts of the county: Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake; Aaron Kaufer, R-Kingston; Gerald J. Mullery, D-Newport Township; Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre; and Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township.
County Court Administrator Michael Shucosky, speaking at the request of the legislative committee, told the delegation the cost of indigent defense has become burdensome.
Shucosky estimated the county spends more than $5 million on both the public defender’s office and other attorneys who must represent defendants when Public Defender’s Office attorneys have a conflict. State legislation also requires the county to provide a lawyer for all juveniles, regardless of whether they are income-eligible, Shucosky said.
Pennsylvania is one of only states in the country that require counties to fund indigent defense, he said.
Yudichak said increased requirements for juvenile representation after the county “Kids for Cash” scandal were supposed to include a corresponding state funding increase, but Shucosky said any funding provided did not keep pace with costs.
The court and other county branches also have been forced to absorb expenses for required language translation for those involved in court proceedings and seeking other county services, from dog licenses to gun permits, Shucosky said.
The need for a new prison also came up. At $34.1 million, the prison system is the largest single department expense in the county’s $130.2 million general fund operating budget. The county prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre is more costly to maintain and staff because it is five stories and aging.
Acting county Manager C. David Pedri said a new prison is needed but won’t be possible for years because the county owes $321 million in principal and interest on past borrowing and won’t be out of debt until 2026.
Yudichak said the state also is grappling with incarceration costs. He suggested the county administration reach out to state correctional service officials to discuss cost-saving state prison reforms that may be applicable to the county.
Shucosky and Pedri also proposed the state allow the county to impose a fee in county magisterial district judge offices that would help offset the county’s leasing costs for these facilities.
County officials have been securing new leases to reduce spending on magisterial offices, but these leases still cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, Pedri said.
Pedri said an additional fee would be a “game changer” because the county has raised all fees for county services to the maximum allowable amounts. Shucosky also noted the state and other entities end up with the lion’s share of revenue from many fees collected by the county.
But Carroll reminded later in the meeting that county officials did not take advantage of another fee to help offset county spending on its roads and bridges. State legislators had approved the option for a $5 vehicle registration fee, but a council majority has not pushed the issue.
Toohil urged county officials to provide follow-up information on the county’s cost to meet state mandates.
Yudichak said the dialogue should continue because all levels of government must work together to provide services the most efficiently.
Pashinski said he and the other legislators around the table continue to push for a hotel tax increase solely to pay off county debt faster.
Most county governments across the state are “at the end of their rope,” imposing extensive cuts to continue funding services, Pashinski said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.