Commissioner Gerhard: "Too much time and too much money has been invested in this project"
A Carbon County commissioner spoke out against his colleagues' recent decision to appeal the ruling on building a road through the former Packerton Yards site.
During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard, who was absent at last week's meeting, read a prepared statement, saying that he "would have been the lone 'no' vote."
"Prior to running for commissioner, I was like most people in this county," he read. "I was frustrated and fed up, literally, as to the length of time the Packerton Yards project has taken to even get off the ground. I had the purest of intentions. The best of intentions when I ran for commissioner to put an end to the story of the Packerton Yards. I soon learned this would be no easy task. We looked at things from all angles as to the best way to deal with this. Each time, we were met with some sort of resistance."
Gerhard continued that the hopes of the project, which were to create jobs and help the local economy, failed, and because of these failed attempts, he realized that it was time to end the county's efforts.
He cited the obstacles the county could not overcome, including most recently, the county court's decision to deny the commissioners the right to construct a road through the 59-acre parcel in Mahoning Township and Lehighton.
"Too much time and too much money has been invested in this project," Gerhard continued. "And, personally, I cannot see spending anymore time and money for something we pretty much know is dead. The appeal will only cost more money and take up more time."
He then suggested that the county sell it.
"Put a for sale sign on the property," Gerhard said. "If we sell it, great. If not, maybe we could clean it up and do something recreational with it."
Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, chairman, who had voiced he was against the project when Commissioner William O'Gurek and former Commissioner Charles Getz were moving forward with the plans, said that he would have again voted to file the appeal, not because he wants to complete the project, but rather because the ruling brings into question all counties' rights when constructing a road within a county.
"I think it's an issue with the municipality (Mahoning Township) that has to be hammered out in the court system, whether the county, not only Carbon but in the state of Pennsylvania, has the authority to build a county road as is stated in the county code," he said. "There are arguments from the other side stating we cannot so this will settle this once and for all. This is more of an issue now of what if we have to build a county road somewhere else."
He then said that the phone calls have stopped for offers on the land at Packerton Yards; and explained what he would like to do with the land.
"My proposal is I would like to pursue the appraisal of the property without the road," Nothstein said, noting that the previous appraisal conducted included the completion of an access road. "Without the access across, that certainly changed the value of the property."
In other matters, Nothstein also brought up the subject of the county jury commissioners.
He explained that the jury commissioners' salaries were not set for 2016-2017 like the other elected officials because those positions will be abolished on Jan. 1, 2014. Currently, Joanne Poluka-Maurer and Joe Steber hold the positions of jury commissioners.
"The state has changed the laws in regards to jury commissioners," Nothstein said, "giving county officials the opportunity to abolish that position, which we did last May when we adopted a resolution. The ruling was upheld in Commonwealth Court; however the jury commissioners have appealed that decision to higher court, but no hearing date has been scheduled yet.
"Should it go to court and that decision is overturned, we would have to go back and give the jury commissioners the same amount of increases as the other elected officials," Nothstein added, noting that currently 10 counties in the state have abolished the positions while another 19 are waiting for the terms to be completed.
Nothstein said that if the decision is upheld and Carbon is abolishes the position in 2014, it would save the county over $20,000 a year because the position holds an annual salary of just over $10,000.
O'Gurek asked if the ruling was overturned and the counties were required to reinstate the positions, would a special election be needed?
Nothstein said he hoped that a decision by the higher courts will be rendered before the November election so that if need be, the positions could just be added to the ballots.
Under Act 108 of 2011, counties can abolish the positions at the end of the terms as long as they have confirmation from the court of common pleas that there is a process in place, which provides an adequate jury pool.
President Judge Roger Nanovic confirmed last May, that is the case in Carbon County. The Carbon Court of Common Pleas is using state Department of Transportation's driver's license registration list for its pool of prospective jurors. The pool has been certified by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania as an allowable pool that represents a good cross section of the community.
The reason for the act was because computerization of jury selection has diminished the need for jury commissioners.
In Carbon, court administration uses a computer to complete selections and other duties formerly completed by jury commissioners.