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Saturday, December 19, 2009

What Culm County needs is a gas-laden enema

“I again want to stress my heartfelt sorrow for what has taken place. I can say without hesitation that I never intended to do wrong.”--Greg Skrepenak

So, the most highly-anticipated ‘surprise’ in the history of Culm County has finally come to pass. Greg Skrepenak went and stepped down in disgrace.

I hearken back to, I think it was 2001, when then WILK radio talk show host Fred Williams had Skrep on his show and was encouraging him to run for an elected office on the local scene.

Now, even though I had absolutely nothing against the ex-NFL lineman, I was seriously annoyed with Fred and found myself shouting at the radio. As if this area didn’t have enough of a leadership vacuum back then, here we had the most popular local political raconteur of the time trying to add to the vacuous mix. Argh!

Needless to say, I was disinclined to vote for any ex-jock, and never did Skrep receive my vote.

Still though, he shot right to the top here in Culm County. And now his lackluster political dalliances have led him to this fateful day. Even if he never intended to do wrong, apparently he got plenty wrong.

And while the anonymous assassins of the internet will have at him with their incessant electronic name-calling and vitriol and what have you, a big, big part of me can’t help but feeling sad about what has become of the freakishly big kid I used to plunk down cash money to see perform on the gridiron and on the court.

The way I see it, the decades-old status quo in Luzerne County can make losers out of everyone, anyone, no matter their original background and no matter their originally high-minded intentions. So now, perceived flaws, warts, foibles and all, it’s time to do away with the cash-stuffed envelopes, the business-as-usual governing by way of back room deals, it’s time to vote Yes for Home Rule. If the system is too easy to manipulate for personal gain, then it’s time to change the system.

Despite the lofty promises made to us--the voting, tax-paying public--by both Todd Vonderheid and Greg Skrepenak back in 2003, all that they really managed were a couple of personal foul calls, and now a game misconduct. One retired from the game and the other has been ejected by the refs.

So much for that playbook.

What else?

Oh yeah, some snot-nosed college kid went and complained about a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. And true to form, the ACLU came a callin’ with threats of legal action.


First of all, I loathe people who spend too much of their time trying to be offended by damn near everything. Seriously. If a plastic figurine of any sort has put you off your lunch, you ought not go on breathing.

And please don’t send me any legalese claptrap. I’ve read it all before, the “separation of church and state” malarkey that is nowhere to be found in any of our founding or supporting documents. It’s bunk. I know it. You know it. And so do the easily-offended pansies.

Anyway, so the kid got his ill begotten 15 seconds of fame (or is it shame?), but the most cockamamie part of this story is the gross overreaction of the hardscrabble hoi polloi, as well as the elected, the appointed and some of their well-connected attorney friends.

This is a fight we need to fight? We will spare any expense in a county that can’t balance a single fiscal budget, can’t stop hemorrhaging tidal waves of red ink and can’t even imagine how to begin retiring it‘s $466 million in outstanding debts?

But we will fight to save our plastic figurines?!?

“Whoever we are, wherever we’re from, we should have noticed by now our behavior is dumb. And if our chances except to improve, it's gonna take a lot more than tryin' to remove the other race or the other whatever from the face of the planet altogether.”--Francis Vincent Zappa

You know, if Greg Skrepenak did as was alleged, if he accepted bribes from some developer who wanted a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) zone created for their personal enrichment, then I can’t help but to wonder how much money changed hands on the down-low when the Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ) were first created here back in 1999.

As first envisioned, KOZs were supposed to trigger investments in long dormant or blighted properties, to bring businesses to blighted areas, and with the end result being job creation, job creation and more job creation. KOZ properties are exempted from property taxes, business privilege taxes and mercantile taxes after the host school board, municipality and county approve of the designation.

But all too often, the tax-exempt designations have become personal tax shelters for the well-connected and nothing else.

Case in point: Lowes’s Restaurant, West Market Street, Wilkes-Barre. An existing restaurant owned by a congressman’s underling is declared a KOZ property in 1999, all taxes are forgiven for a decade, and then the restaurant is sold to an adjoining business owner.

Were any investments made in that tax-exempt property? Were any jobs created? Was any blight removed? No. So the only party that benefited from that KOZ status was the property owner, the longtime political player. As for the community at large, well, we got the decreased tax base.

And whether any bribes were proffered matters not to me. The undeniable fact is that a congressman’s aide was given a tax exemption for a decade. And now that that decade has passed, where’s the cost-benefit analysis? Were any capital investments made to said property? Were any jobs created? And should we be insulted, should we be further maddened by the fact that he ended up being Pennsylvania's Director for Rural Development?

The owner of the newsstand wasn’t afforded as much. And neither was the owner of the deli, or the guy who owns the downtown music store. No, only the well-connected are afforded a tax-exempt status that flies in the face of the original intent of the KOZ program.

And that’s not corruption?

Perhaps a huge investigation needs to be conducted of the various and sundry folks who apply for and receive KOZ status, Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) freebies, Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) giveaways, Rural Business Enterprise Grants (RBEG) and the people who awarded them in the first place.

It seems the State Department of Community and Economic Development has delegated too, too much to the local yokels who have clearly demonstrated they can’t be trusted when the big deals are made on the back nine in violation of the Sunshine Laws.

Who gets what, why, and how much money was passed under the table in advance? Is that too much to ask being that we are then called upon to shore up the declining tax base? Methinks not.

The long and short of it is, when what would have been public money is used for private gain, in my denuded mind, that’s corruption.

Now somebody send me that FBI tip line number, will you?

Ah, never mind.

What Culm County needs is a gas-laden enema. And with that much-needed accelerant inserted, all we need is the match.

Sez me.

6 more days ‘til Christmas and I haven’t bought a single thing. Not a gift. Not a foodstuff. And no wrapping paper or frilly bows.

In other words, from here on out, stay well out of my way. You have been duly warned.

Merry Christmas.


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