Chamber of Commerce Candidates’ Forum – September 9, 2011

All four candidates for commissioner finally had the chance to share a stage last night, thanks to the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce. While not a debate, it sure was telling as to what each candidate is all about and the type of campaigns we are running.

The format was pretty simple – following a meet-and-greet with the attendees, each of us had 10 minutes to deliver a presentation about who we are, what we are campaigning on, and what we want to do. We were also given some topics the Chamber wanted to hear about (economic development, Marcellus shale gas and the potential for reassessment).

In my message, which I want to share with you, I focused on the good work taking place in your county government, as well as my philosophy about government and service. My Republican opponents, unfortunately, took a much different route. I suppose when you have nothing good to say about your record, your accomplishments, or your plans the easiest thing to do is attack. And in the process, they didn’t just expose their hypocrisy, they proved they have nothing to offer aside from same tired clichés and political-speak. Honestly, I expected a much better performance from them. But now we know for sure what we’ve assumed for months – these two are going to stick to the generic, right from Republican script because they offer little else.

It was interesting to contrast their drivel with my running mate Jerry Lucia’s message of hard work, results and public service. I am really proud to stand with him in this race. Hopefully, some debates will materialize in the next couple months so Jerry and I can call out these two on their nonsense.

Now, as promised, here’s the text of the speech I delivered. I hope it helps you better understand me and my campaign.

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It is a pleasure to be here with you tonight. Thank you to the Chamber of Commerce for putting this together – both the staff and the board members. I realize the amount of work it takes to pull off these types of events.

And thanks to everyone who is here tonight. I commend you all for taking the time to learn about your county government and the candidates for county commissioner. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to meet us all –compare and contrast us – and then make a better informed decision about who is best to lead Westmoreland County government.

I stand here tonight in a unique position. I am incumbent, but this is my first election. I have worked for the county for nine years, but as Commissioner for 15 months. I have experience making tough decisions about budgets and finances, but also personal experience about how important the decisions we make, and the services we provide, are. It’s that balance – and that perspective – that qualify me as the best candidate.

To me, the best way to get to know any of us is to understand our philosophies – not just some generic, straight-from-the-party playbook philosophy – but what makes us tick, what’s important to us, how we view the job of commissioner and the immense responsibilities that come with it. So here’s mine…

I believe the work we do is extremely important. We have authority over a $318 million budget of public money and roughly 2,000 employees. We serve nearly 370,000 residents and dozens of communities, both small and large. But we can never just view our responsibilities as simply figures. We serve people. I never forget that.

We serve seniors who depend on us to help preserve their dignity, at-risk children who depend on us for their safety, and people with developmental disabilities who depend on us for their quality of life. I work every day to find the balance between the important services we provide and the cost to the public.

That’s my philosophy. That is how I approach this job. That’s how I’ve approached the decisions I have made as your Commissioner.

It’s important that we understand some basic facts about Westmoreland County – facts you will never read about in our daily paper. And I am proud of the role I have played during my tenure to get us to, and to maintain, this position. :

• County property taxes have increased only once in the past 11 years.
• And because of good fiscal management and wise investments we have a $35 million fund balance that will prevent the need to raise taxes any time soon.
• We have a fully funded $340 pension at a time when state and local governments are struggling to meet their obligations.
• The county’s debt is only a fraction of the legal limit.
• We have fewer employees on the payroll than we did a generation ago.
• The average taxpayer pays about $1.15 a day to run county government.

Now, regarding taxes, reassessment is a topic that is in the news periodically – mostly because of the situation in Allegheny County. It is no secret that Westmoreland has not reassessed properties in 40 years. And I have little interest in doing so – not for any political reasons. It is because I have done my homework – and I have no interest in spending $10 million on a reassessment only to have the values essentially out of date the day it’s completed. And that’s basically the way it works in the current system. There needs to be an equitable statewide solution to regularly updating property values. Otherwise, this piecemeal disparate system will just perpetuate itself. I will continue to work with our statewide association to push for a comprehensive Commonwealth-wide solution.

Still, the threat of a court-ordered reassessment is always possible. That’s why we have migrated all of our property records to a digital format. In addition to making the records more accessible and easier to work with, it’s good planning.

I think everyone in this room has watched closely the state of the economy the past few months, with I am sure a lot of uneasiness. Certainly, county government cannot be the solution to all the economic uncertainty, but we’ve proven we can play a key role.

Our 16 industrial parks are home to 123 companies that employee 9,000 workers and generate more than $4.7 million in tax revenue. We must continue to make sure that we are investing in infrastructure and developing sites in our parks to attract new companies and help current tenants expand. We must also continue our aggressive business-to-business outreach program to make sure our businesses – both in and out of our industrial parks – are aware of all the resources available to them.

My primary focus now is on renovating the former Sony facility into a multi-tenant, multi-use facility. It will take a lot of money, and a lot of creating thinking. But too much good work has been done – and too much capital has been invested – to develop the jobs hub around it that we cannot and will not allow this project to fail. It will get done.

Obviously the Marcellus Shale gas industry is playing a role in our economy. I know there are competing views on how good this is for our county – and for our environment – but it has been good for our industrial parks and for jobs. There are now 13 companies doing business in Westmoreland County directly linked to the Marcellus shale gas industry that are on their way to employing hundreds.

To give you some perspective on just how significant this is getting, we recently approved what is the biggest transaction in the history of our IDC – a $2.2 million deal for a 44-acre site at our Distribution Park. The Oklahoma-based company that inked the deal manufactures compressors for the gas industry.

We need to make sure that we have the continued means to accommodate this kind of rapid and massive growth.

To be clear, county government has zero authority over regulating gas production or restricting it. But one way we have been able to assist local communities – who actually have some authority – is through a draft ordinance our Planning Department developed. It has provided communities with a framework to begin addressing some of the challenges inherent with this business. I will work to build on this type of cooperation and resource-sharing with our local governments.

In my time in office we have initiated a number of projects that have improved county operations and efficiencies. I’d like to highlight two.

Thanks to $3 million in federal stimulus money we replaced the antiquated and inefficient heating and air conditioning systems for the Courthouse complex. We are replacing windows in the Courthouse to improve energy efficiency. We also installed the first-ever geothermal heating system in a county facility – at the newly renovated Juvenile Services Center and replaced inefficient computer monitors with high efficiency LCD monitors. These measures will save energy and money.

Another significant project we are working on is frankly groundbreaking when it comes to regional cooperation – and a model for the future. And it saved us $900,000. Basically the story is this…We were in need of a new switch for our countywide emergency radio system. Our friends in Armstrong and Indiana counties were shopping for new systems. So working together we made plans to purchase the $2.8 million switch together, splitting the cost three ways. This type of forward thinking and cooperation so inspired the Regional Emergency Management Council that it agreed to pay the full costs of the system. Because of our cooperation we saved local taxpayers $900,000 while making our system better.

Just this morning, we used the savings from this project to add another channel to the radio system – helping our first responders communicate better. So the story just keeps getting better – all from simply working with our neighbors.

No one can – or should – speak of county government without discussing human services. It is our primary mission and accounts for more than half of our budget. Our job is getting harder, as we see the cuts coming from Harrisburg. But it’s not just hard on the Commissioners. It’s harder on the 6,000 children being aided by our Children’s Bureau. It’s harder on the thousands of seniors who receive transportation help, home-delivered meals or in-home services that keep them out of nursing homes. It’s harder on the 18,000 people in our county who have behavioral health or developmental disabilities.

I will never lose sight of them. And I will continue to advocate for them and work for them.

Throughout my time in office I have proven that I am in this for public service – not personal gain. I have never accepted a county cell phone or mileage reimbursement. In one of my first acts in office, I completely rewrote the county’s outdated vehicle policy to better control the fleet and save money. I insisted that it include a prohibition against Commissioners from ever having take-home cars. I also declined a pay increase – and I am pleased that others followed my lead.

Now, some will tell you what they think you want to hear. They will make all sorts of promises to do all sorts of things. And they will ultimately come up empty. The only campaign promise I make is to work hard every day, be straight with the residents of this county and to be accessible to them.

Others will tell you that government should run more like a business. The problem with that, of course, is that government is not a business. And unfortunately, as we all know, not all businesses make it. County government is not allowed to fail. We provide services that are not driven by profit. They can’t be. Or the people we serve would simply not be served. Certainly, I am always looking for better efficiencies, more cost-efficient ways to conduct operations – and, in fact, as I’ve demonstrated tonight I’ve implemented them. But I will never try to fool you with simple catch phrases.

Now getting back to that personal experience. My wife and I have five children – ages 17, 14, 8, 3 – and our baby will be one tomorrow. Two of our boys have special needs – one has autism, one Down syndrome. I speak of them often when I talk about county services. Because I have seen firsthand the impact that quality services can have on not just them, but also their friends, classmates, their caregivers – and our society. They drive me to do my best because they remind me every day how important our work is.

I care deeply about this area. Growing up in the small village of Westmoreland City in North Huntingdon my parents taught me the value of hard work, honesty, humility and community. These lessons have remained with me as your commissioner.

It is truly an honor to be your commissioner. It is also a responsibility that I take very seriously. I am running this year to make sure that Westmoreland County government remains cost-efficient, open and responsive.

I ask for your vote November 8th. Thank you for coming tonight.