As we finish up the first month of 2013, I am thinking back to the year that was. While any disagreement we may have in the Courthouse seems to always make the news, it often overshadows our accomplishments. I’d like to reflect on some of those now.
I’ll start with what seemingly is the focus of any discussion about government – taxes. 2012 marked the seventh year in a row that the county tax rate stayed the same. Years of prudent, and often tough, decisions have effectively ended the talk of tax increases during the budget process. We still maintain a roughly $30 million fund balance, meaning taxes should remain stable for years to come.
One of the ways we’ve managed to maintain a healthy bottom line is by effectively managing our healthcare costs. As I detailed in a previous article our annual increases in healthcare for more than 4,000 people (employees and their dependents) have been less than three percent annually. In 2012, we embarked on a historic home-host partnership with Excela Health that will help us better control costs, keep our employees healthier and bolster the local health system that is a major employer in the county.
Often it’s the smaller, almost mundane, items that cut costs. We’re saving money with new deals with the county’s longtime providers for not only healthcare, but everything from property insurance to copiers.
The county’s pension fund had a successful year in 2012, further validating our balanced investment plan and long-term approach, growing from $326 million to $359 million without us having to change one manager or strategy. Or as my friend County Controller Jeff Balzer so aptly put it recently, “We had a great year…doing nothing!”
The county’s prison once again earned total compliance with state corrections standards. This was the third straight inspection (they happen every two years) that we’ve met this level of excellence. It is a testament to the hard work and diligence of our professional prison staff, as well as the policies and procedures we’ve put in place over the years. Moreover, earlier in 2012, an additional, and unannounced, inspection by the independent National Institute of Corrections resulted in only superficial, yet welcome, improvements to the facility.
Our airport continued its unprecedented growth. In 2010 – the year I took office – there were zero commercial passengers at the Arnold Palmer Airport. In 2012 that number exceeded 140,000. The partnership with Spirit Airlines is expanding too. Last summer we announced the beginning of regular flights to Dallas/Fort Worth.
Family recreation got a big boost, too. We put the finishing touches on the Twin Lakes Park Expansion – opening the new skate bowl at Peach Plaza, the Franklin Dog Park and the winter sports area. If you haven’t been there, get there soon. You will be impressed.
We made important strides to improve our local economy. We finalized an agreement with the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC) to redevelop the 2.8 million-square-foot former Sony facility in Mount Pleasant. We also welcomed Aquion Energy as the first major new tenant. The company is planning to create 400 high-tech manufacturing jobs. We finalized the creation of a new Keystone Opportunity Zone in our industrial park surrounding this complex, providing incentives for businesses to relocate or expand. This is in addition to a variety of new long-term leases, small business startups and expansions at our industrial parks throughout the county. The Derry Redevelopment Project of the former Porcelain Park facility – the largest of its kind in the county, and in recent memory – also advanced, clearing a brownfield in the heart of Derry Borough for new business opportunities.
I gained a better appreciation, too, this year for the small businesses that employ thousands of our residents, by visiting dozens of companies from Latrobe to Lower Burrell, through Irwin to Monessen and every place in-between. Businesses like Penn State Tool & Die, Quality Mold Inc., Westmoreland Mechanical Testing and Research, Dai Nippon Printing, General Nuclear, and others that are helping drive our economy.
Of course, the main business of county government is human services. In addition to building on our award-winning services, last year marked an unprecedented effort to raise the level of outreach and awareness for people with developmental disabilities. We fought against Governor’s Corbett’s draconian budget cuts, organized a “Share Your Story” effort to help humanize the life-sustaining services constantly being threatened, and set up a permanent gallery in the Courthouse featuring artwork created by people with special needs. We also sponsored the first-ever “End the R-Word” party at Westmoreland Mall, getting hundreds to sign a pledge refusing to use the derogatory word for people with intellectual disabilities.
As significant as all this is in the big picture, I never lost sight of what might be called the smaller picture. Whether it was fighting to keep open a senior center in the small borough of East Vandergrift, finalizing the restoration of a historic voting house in Derry Township, expanding outreach to veterans in New Kensington, or ensuring the disabled get the assistance they deserve, I’ve made it my mission to never overlook an opportunity to try to help someone. Not just because they are constituents, or voters, but because they are people. That is after all why I ran for commissioner, and I never lose sight of that.
We in Westmoreland have a lot to be proud of, and I’ve tried to use my website, other media, and speaking engagements to make our residents better aware of these successes. But despite all these accomplishments, there were certain important decisions made by my colleagues, over my objections, because they were wrong for county government and for the future of the county. While we’ve worked together on many issues there were times we could not. Coming soon, our differences……