Meeting at the courthouse in Tunkhannock on Jan. 28 were (from left) Wyoming County solicitor Paul Litwin III, commissioners Tom Henry, Rick Wilbur and Ernie King, and chief clerk Bill Gaylord.
Photo and story by Rick Hiduk
(Exclusive to EndlessMtnLifesyles.com readers)
In lieu of re-opening the 2020 Wyoming County budget approved by the prior board of commissioners as he’d suggested in a December meeting that he would do as soon as he was in office, new chairperson Rick Wilbur proposed a motion at today’s public commissioners meeting that will drastically change the protocol for hiring.
“We need to go on a ‘diet,’” Wilbur stated, in reference to reigning in a bulge in salaries that he has maintained are unmanageble in the long run. “I’m not talking about getting rid of people. But maybe we could tighten up through attrition.”
At the core of his concern is the lack of policy or procedure in the past that often resulted in the commissioners approving the hiring of new employees and their wages after the people had already started working.
“Putting a paper on our desk telling us that this person has been hired is ridiculous,” said Wilbur. “What can you do at that point? You can’t fire them. We need to do some things to straighten that out.”
“There’s never been a process in place,” chief clerk Bill Gaylord concurred.
Wilbur made a motion that any department heads who want to hire someone must approach the commissioners first for permission to advertise the position. “They have to justify the need for the new person,” he explained. “Then the commissioners will vote on allowing them to proceed with the hiring process.”
Commissioner Ernie King seconded the motion, and commissioner Tom Henry, who voiced his approval of the changes, gave the final affirmative vote.
Wilbur clarified afterward that the commissioners do not intend to review the applications for individual jobs. “We aren’t the ones picking the person,” he stated, adding that the department heads are best suited to select whomever they believe is best for the job. “They are hiring the person that they feel is most qualified.”
On a related note, county election director Flo Kellett’s request to add a full-time position to her department was tabled. Wilbur acknowledged that the upcoming presidential election would likely put additional strain on the election department and that Kellett would need more help.
“I don’t want to get a full-time person in there who we don’t need next year,” he stated. “Let’s talk to Flo about it and see if maybe we can get her another part-time person to help for this year.”
As long as an employee does not work more than 19 hours per week, Gaylord pointed out, the county does not have to provide health insurance.
Sheriff Vows More Efficient Processes
New sheriff Bob Roberts voiced his approval of the new hiring process and formally asked that he be able to advertise for a new deputy sheriff, a position that is already budgeted and for which permission was unanimously granted by the commissioners.
In his department’s quest to alleviate a backlog of bench warrants, Roberts noted that he has found that each of the 190-plus warrants has to be reviewed, after one warrant that was being served was found to have been vacated. “We’re working it from the other end to make sure that the warrants are valid and active,” he explained.
Roberts has also discovered that the department had not been filing for reimbursements of training costs for deputies and constables through the PA Commission on Crime & Delinquency (PCCD) in a timely manner and that the opportunity to recoup costs for at least four training exercises had expired. He managed to get one through, amounting to a $1,364 return to the county for a deputy’s wages and mileage, and promised to streamline the process in the future.
Thousands in Grants Available
County planner Lynnelle Farber addressed the commissioners with an update on the availability of $50,000 in Marcellus Legacy Fund grants for recreation projects. Available in amounts up to $5,000 and requiring a 50 percent match, the grants are available to non-profit organizations, and applications are due February 21.
“We want to give this money away,” Henry remarked.
“It’s also money that we can’t use for anything else,” Wilbur added.
Though she has yet to receive any applications, Farber said that is not so unusual at this point. She has been communicating with several organizations that she expects to apply for the grants, which can be used as a match for DCNR funding distributed through the Endless Mountains Heritage Region (EMHR).
Cain Chamberlin, EMHR executive director stopped by to introduce himself to the new commissioners and remind them that the EMHR has always included a commissioner from each of the four representative counties. The retirement of commissioner Judy Mead, a founding member of the EMHR, creates an opening. Commissioner Wilbur told Chamberlin that the three commissioners would be meeting soon specifically to determine who would sit on which boards.
As county planner, Farber holds and “at large” seat with the EMHR, and she reminded the commissioners that there would be a meeting at 6 pm on Monday, Feb. 3 at the Dietrich Theater to provide details on the PA Route 6 Façade Program, through which funds will be made available to property owners for sprucing up the front exteriors of their buildings.
On Thursday, Feb. 27, the EMHR will collaborate with a number of organizations to conduct a grant workshop at the Dietrich Theater at which time numerous grant opportunities will be discussed, along with guidance on how to apply for them.
County Abandoning Original Bridgeview Plans
Frustrated by the amount of time it has taken to complete the three-unit housing project in Nicholson called Bridgeview Commons, as well as the inability of the Wyoming County Housing & Redevelopment Authority(H&RA) to sell the homes, the commissioners voted on Tuesday to request a one-month extension with the PA Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED) while they decide how to handle the mess.
A year ago, county EMA director and commissioner Henry visited the site to find that it was “nowhere near completion.” Henry bulked at that time at a bill from the H&RA to the county for one-third of the construction cost, fearing it would leave the county financially responsible for unfinished work.
“It wasn’t quite as successful as it should be,” Wilbur commented.
He and Henry agreed that the units were too expensive for low- to moderate-income people to purchase and suggested that, with DCED approval, they might be rented instead.
Other Matters of Interest
The hiring of Lacey Evans as a full-time probation officer was unanimously approved by the board. Henry described Lacey as a “4-year college graduate with prior experience.” At $32,013, her starting salary is about half that of retired Jim Neary’s salary, whom she is effectively replacing.
County 911 director Jeff Porter was in attendance for the annual ratification of 911 contracts and to get approval for a requested waiver of a $400-plus fee to have a recording of a 911 call delivered to court for a civil case. A lawyer had requested the waiver on behalf of a client who cannot afford it.
“We’ve never had to implement that fee,” said Henry, noting that requests for recordings under a long-standing policy are rare.
Taking into account that the person needing the waiver is local and the case will be heard in Tunkhannock, the commissioners agreed to the request.
Henry reported that he had recently visited the Huntington Recovery Center – formerly a Clearbrook facility – on Route 118 and sees it as a viable alternative for county youths needing recovery services. Due to its relative proximity, Henry suggested, “It will save the county a lot of money if we can use it.”
Commissioner Wilbur asked for a motion to submit a letter of approval on behalf of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce to the HGTV network to help qualify Tunkhannock for a possible “small town makeover” for a new TV show. Owing to the intense competition expected for acceptance by the network, Wilbur said, “It’s a shot in the dark, but it’s worth a try.”
A moment of reflection was observed by those in attendance for John “Jack” Martin, who had served for more than 35 years with the Wyoming County H&RA and who recently passed away.