September 17, 2019

After concerns were raised by both sides, the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority on Tuesday delayed approval of a new intergovernmental cooperation agreement with the county.

Instead, authority board members and officials plan to invite county representatives to a work session to review and revise the proposed agreement.

Drafted by several authority and county representatives, the proposed document would replace a vague agreement that was only a few pages and implemented in 1998, when the authority was under the county’s wing. The authority, which oversees the Wyoming Valley Levee, has since become a standalone entity with its own staff and leased offices in Plains Township funded by a fee on levee-protected properties implemented in 2009.

In addition to establishing flood response duties, the proposed agreement calls for the authority to consider moving into the county-owned Penn Place building in Wilkes-Barre at a lower rent when the Plains Township lease expires and for the county to explore allowing the authority to purchase health and property insurance coverage through the county.

County Manager C. David Pedri said the administration requested a delay because the county solicitor’s office did not receive the final proposed written agreement until Monday and must still review it. County council approval would be required for an agreement to take effect.

Several flood authority members questioned some of the wording and argued some provisions should be added and deleted.

Unpaid levee fees

As of Dec. 31, the authority was owed $910,754 in delinquent levee fees.

The authority discussed but opted not to pursue an idea of publicly posting lists of defaulters.

Instead, the board agreed to compile a report on the highest delinquencies and present it to Portnoff Law Associates for more enhanced collection efforts.

Attorney David Dugan, of Portnoff, told the authority his company pursues liens against defaulters and has the option to proceed to a sheriff’s sale of a property if collection efforts are unsuccessful. Dugan said after the meeting several sheriff sale actions have been filed, although he was not aware of any properties auctioned due to delinquent levee fees because those sales were continued.

Flood maps

Authority Board member Kevin O’Brien asked what can be done to compensate for a height shortfall on two levee stretches that could impact flood insurance rates.

The levee was designed for 41 feet with a required additional 3-foot safety buffer called a “freeboard” on top, and the system held up when the Susquehanna River rose to a record 42.66 feet in September 2011.

However, subsequent federal analysis concluded two of the three levee stretches — Wilkes-Barre/Hanover Township and Plymouth —fall a few inches short on the freeboard requirement due in part to increased storms, development and sediment and tree growth in the river. As a result, rates are expected to rise for levee-protected property owners who want to purchase flood insurance along the two stretches.

Authority Executive Director Christopher Belleman said the authority will pursue a grant to perform a survey and explore affordable options to address the freeboard deficiency. Making the levee higher may be too costly because height requires widening at the base for stability, often leading to property acquisition, he said.

O’Brien said he’s not an engineer but believes pavement a few inches thick atop the stretches could be a solution. Belleman said curbing may be possible, but he won’t know until a study is completed.