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Urban questions district judge office’s cost

Joe Zola’s new space on Broad Street in Hazleton will cost $78,540 a year. County official says site is reasonable.

District Judge Joe Zola’s new office space is on East Broad Street in Hazleton. The building is formerly Dubatto’s Family Restaurant.

Times leader staff photo/pete g. wilcox

District Judge Joe Zola’s new office space in a former Hazleton restaurant costs significantly more than space rented for his 16 counterparts throughout Luzerne County, records show.

Commissioners in September agreed to pay $6,545 per month, or $78,540 annually, to house Zola’s office at 615 E. Broad St.

The second highest rental cost is $31,000. All the other district justices have budgeted $25,000 or less for office space, according to the county’s proposed 2007 budget.

County minority Commissioner Stephen A. Urban said he voted against Zola’s rental because he believes it’s too expensive. He also thinks Zola should have returned to the county’s previous city-owned annex on Broad Street, where Zola paid around $12,100 annually.

“I just think this is another sweetheart deal, more waste of taxpayer dollars. I think that the public ought to be outraged at the price of the lease we’re paying,” Urban said.

The building is owned by Leonard Rossi, according to county assessment records. Rossi and Zola are friends. However, Zola said Friday that he’s friends with lots of people and supported the site because it met all his needs – not as a favor. Zola said county commissioners determined the location and the dollar amount after checking out at least one other property advertising available space.

Zola said he likes the location because there is ample parking and space, and the lease covers everything from light bulbs and bath soap to plowing, utilities and insurance.

“The owner furnished the courtroom and staff kitchen. He does all the maintenance, inside and out. It’s great,” he said.

County Chief Clerk/Manager Sam Guesto said Friday that he believes the price is reasonable because it is all-inclusive and provides 3,500 square feet – an amount needed to host regional central court sessions.

Guesto said other sites were examined, but this one was the most suitable and able to be occupied around the start of the year. State court officials had been pushing the county to quickly secure a home for Zola, he said.

Zola and other county offices moved out of the city-owned annex in September 2005 when mold was discovered on a wall. The building was later deemed safe.

Guesto said Zola couldn’t stay long at his temporary home squeezed in with District Justice Thomas Sharkey in Hazle Township.

The Graham Foundation, headed by city Councilwoman Evelyn Graham, agreed in January to pay for repairs to the annex on the condition that the city relocates its police department to the building from City Hall. City officials say there’s still room for Zola.

But Guesto said the county couldn’t wait.

“The state said he’s out of jurisdiction, so we had to move him out ASAP,” Guesto said. “We worked closely with the courts and Zola to make sure he was comfortable with his new space, and that’s ultimately the one he liked the most.”

The issue of district judge space will continue to be an issue, Guesto said, because three more district justices have requested different accommodations – John Hasay in Shickshinny, Diana Malast in Plains Township and Gerald Feissner in Freeland.

Hasay and Feissner, who are housed in their municipal buildings, have expressed concerns about the condition of their spaces, Guesto said. Malast will probably need more space because of the nearby Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, he said.

Hasay said Friday that his office has experienced problems with heat and ventilation, and he’d like a more central location in his coverage area.

“We’d like to see what our options are in regard to what’s available,” he said.

Urban said taxpayers should pay attention to the leases because the county typically recoups only one-third of the cost it spends on the district judge system.

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