Sizable Grant Puts Nicholson Housing Project Back on Track

Participants in a brief meeting of the Wyoming County Prison Board prior to the regular public meeting of the Wyoming County Commissioners on Oct. 26 included (clockwise from left) solicitor Paul Litwin; commissioners Tom Henry, Rick Wilbur, and Ernie King; chief clerk Bill Gaylord; district attorney Jeff Mitchell; sheriff Bob Roberts; warden Ken Repsher, and (not pictured) training lieutenant Heather Schmidt.

Story and Photo by Rick Hiduk

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The Wyoming County Commissioners were excited to announce on Tuesday morning that significant new funding will revive an affordable housing project begun in Nicholson more than a decade ago that was never completed. The project was rife with problems, excuses and a lack of oversight under the previous administration of the Wyoming County Housing & Redevelopment Authority (H&RA).

According to commissioner chair Rick Wilbur, the cost of infrastructure (sewer, drainage, etc.) for the original project ate up the funds available to construct the housing units. When deadlines for construction were not met, the state asked the county to return $700,000 that had already been spent. Two years ago, the commissioners took back the reins of the H&RA, which is technically a state agency operating under each county’s name, and ask Trehab officials from Susquehanna County to manage a number of projects that were underway.

At a December 2020 meeting of the commissioners, Wilbur stated, “We had some problems with the way some things were being handled.” Trehab has a similar mission of providing housing and other services for low- to moderate-income residents, he noted, and the commissioners saw the agency as better equipped to manage the projects and CBDG funding.

Trehab executive director Dennis Phelps was present at Tuesday’s meeting with a number of contracts, annual agreements, and resolutions in hand for the commissioners to sign, including H&RA’s 2022 state CBDG disbursement of $240,000.

But the big news of the day was the receipt of $3.3 million dollars in federal funding that will be applied to a new housing project that can utilize the infrastructure that was previously installed. “It dramatically changes the scope of the project,” Wilbur remarked. The current plan is for 10 to 12 new senior housing units for low- to moderate-income individuals to be constructed between the spring of 2022 and the following year.

Phelps and the commissioners gave a resounding vote of confidence to H&RA staff administrator Josh Winn to manage the new project at Bridgeview.

Women Back at Prison

Most female inmates in the Wyoming County Correctional Facility system are back at the jail in Tunkhannock now that the number of female staff members is sufficient again. Overall staffing at the prison is on much more solid footing than it has been for most of the past year, though warden Ken Repsher said that he could still use some more part-time staff. He commended those who are working for going “above and beyond” to ensure that all the bases are covered.

Current inmate population stands at 58, with four men and four women boarded out to other facilities for rehabilitation or security reasons.

The distribution of e-tablets that had been approved as part of a grant nearly a year ago were finally distributed to prisoners. “It gives the inmate population a lot more options in getting information they need,” said Repsher, citing job opportunities and access to law libraries as examples. “It can be quite a benefit for them.”

On a related note, the commissioners approved acceptance of a grant that will bring PathStone programming into the county. The not-for-profit community development and human services organization provides re-entry services for prisoners returning to civilian life. The commissioners also met with representatives of Cross Trade, a similar, more locally-based organization, but deemed them too new to serve the county’s needs at this time. The cost for PatStone will be covered by a $2 million grant that will be split evenly between four northeast Pennsylvania counties.

American Rescue Plan Funds in Limbo

As part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, $65 billion was released to counties in March for what was promoted as “direct, flexible aid.” According to the commissioners, it was anything but. “The counties are very reluctant as to how the money is spent because the rules change every day,” said commissioner Wilbur. “We haven’t spent any of ours yet because of that. We don’t want to have to give any of it back.”

The commissioners participated in a virtual meeting with the National Association of Counties (NACo) on Monday and were hoping to get answers to the questions they posed at a follow-up meeting on Tuesday afternoon. “We asking them to loosen the rules on how the money can be spent,” Wilbur related.

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