State of the County

An important part of my job as your County Commissioner is to make sure residents know what is happening in the county. Every year, I host my “State of the County” breakfast to highlight what is going on in Westmoreland County and in county government.

This year’s event was held June 21, and I wanted to share my address with you here…

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This State of the County breakfast is an opportunity for me to speak directly to you about what is happening in Westmoreland County and in Westmoreland County government, and there is a lot to report – too much to focus on in our brief time here this morning. But I wanted to focus on some important economic development efforts and some initiatives in county government.

First, our economy, which always seems to be on the top of everyone’s mind. Unemployment remains a concern nationally and locally. But I am happy to report that, as has been the case for the past several years, Westmoreland County’s unemployment rate is lower than both the state and the nation. At last report, the county’s unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, while the state was 7.6 percent and the nation at 7.5 percent.

The county’s industrial parks remain an important component of our economic vitality and a jobs hub. The 123 companies in our industrial parks employ nearly 9,050.

Last year, we sold or optioned six parcels, totaling approximately 70 acres within our industrial park system. Of the 1,700 developable acres within our system, we have sold or have under option 1,130 of them.

Here are a few examples of those industrial park developments:

Developer EFR Limited Partnership recently purchased six acres at the Westmoreland County Airpark in Unity Township to erect a 75,000 square foot flex warehouse at the park.

An existing 37,000 square foot facility at the Airpark is under sales agreement with an undisclosed local company. Expect an announcement in the very near future.

Glass decorating company Glassautomatic – the very first tenant of our Mount Pleasant Glass Centre – recently renewed its lease and added an additional 15,000 square feet.

We are working on several major projects now to keep the county working…

This is the third year I’ve been doing this event, and every year I have spoken about the RIDC Westmoreland facility – still often referred to as the Sony complex. This is an important year for this major redevelopment project.

By year’s end, Aquion Energy will have its first full-scale manufacturing facility up and running. Aquion is a developer and manufacturer of revolutionary sodium ion batteries and energy storage systems. The company is leasing approximately 317,000-square feet of space within this enormous facility.

They are joining DNP (Dai Nippon Printing) which is expanding its operations. The company, headquartered in Tokyo, prints product labeling codes and magnetic strips for credit cards. DNP recently leased more space within the complex to support a new product line.

Our partners at the Westmoreland County Community College will begin construction this summer of a state-of-the-art workforce and technical training facility at the complex. The benefits of this project are twofold – obviously filling up space at the complex, but also training our workforce for local jobs and encouraging entrepreneurship.

By the end of this year, these three tenants will be employing about 400 workers in a facility that was seemingly left for dead just a few years ago.

Natural gas from shale remains an important part of our economy – today, and most certainly, in the future. While drilling activity has slowed a bit, due mostly to the low cost of gas, there have been 22 wells drilled thus far in 2013. There were 42 last year and 59 in 2011. There have been 250 unconventional wells drilled in the county so far, with more than three-quarters of them in Derry, Washington, Sewickley and South Huntingdon Townships.

Speaking of natural gas in South Huntingdon, Tenaska Energy is finalizing plans to build a natural gas-powered power station there. This project will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy, employ dozens if not hundreds of construction workers and be an important source of reliable power in our area.

Of course, community development and revitalization is also key to our economy. As part of a large-scale revitalization plan in the City of Jeannette, we are working hard to acquire two significant abandoned properties. These sites include the former Jeannette Glass Company – a 13-acre site adjacent to the county’s industrial park – and the former Monsour Medical Center along Route 30. These are complex projects, for sure, complete with tax liens, environmental issues, unmet pension obligations and practically any other complication one could think of. But we are working with our IDC, Redevelopment Authority and the city to gain control of these properties to, first, get them down to protect public safety and, then, to return them to productive use once more. Time is of the essence – as anyone who has driven by Monsour can attest – so our goal is to have a process for their remediation formalized in the next year.

And in Derry Borough, now that the county’s Redevelopment Authority has cleared the monstrosity that was the remnants of a long abandoned Westinghouse facility, we are now marketing this strategically situated brownfield for manufacturing or light industrial uses. Housing is always an interesting measure of our economy. And, thankfully, we are removed from focusing on the number of foreclosures. But it is mixed news for Westmoreland. While the average home sale fell in the past year from $149,000 to $136,000, the number of sales has stayed stable – about 320 a year. The county’s housing starts are also down slightly from where they were at this time last year – from 48 to 36.

Now, to county government…

One of the most important – and expensive – areas we manage is employee healthcare. This past year, we formalized a historic partnership with Excela Health to better care for our employees and save money. The county has entered into a “home-host” agreement with the health system where Excela actually covers the cost of our employee co-pays at their facilities. Excela has also helped us develop a robust new wellness program. And now we’re even talking about a health clinic in the Courthouse.

Our methodical, measured and diversified approach to managing the county’s pension continues to pay off. Our retirement fund grew in the past year from $326 million to $359 million without any dramatic changes. Or as my friend County Controller Jeff Balzer once put in, “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 that we’ve met this level of excellence

I am co-chairing a countywide Drug Task Force to determine ways to stop the heroin and prescription drug abuse epidemic that is destroying far too many lives – not just those who die, but the ones left behind. This is a public health crisis that goes well beyond law enforcement.

We are putting together a video conferencing package to cut down on prisoner transport costs, enhance attorney-client communication, and even eventually lead to video-visits for family members.

We are planning for yet another expansion of Twin Lakes Park, including a dek hockey rink, an amphitheatre with a band shell, new restrooms and additional parking.

We’ve begun construction of a million-dollar Emergency Operations Center at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to better protect the public, respond to emergencies, and best preserve our state-of-the-art response equipment.

Speaking of our airport….

It now features regular flights to Fort Lauderdale, Myrtle Beach – and just recently Dallas. Just last week, we formally christened the new flights to Texas. It’s hard to believe that when I first took office we had zero commercial passengers going through the airport. This year we will have more than 300,000. Three years ago the airport was a ghost town. Now, we’re talking about terminal expansions and additional carriers.

In addition to its investment in a new training facility, our Community College will break ground later this month on a new education center in Downtown Latrobe. It will help revitalize the town and solidify the college’s long-term presence in the eastern past of the county.

Some important transportation projects are also taking shape…

Route 30 is being widened – and the whole stretch made safer – from the Toll 66 interchange west through Jeannette to the West Penn Power facility.

Final design for a new interchange along Interstate 70 in New Stanton will lead to construction in 2015.

We are working with PennDOT and our Transit Authority to finalize a new and permanent Park-and-Ride facility in North Huntingdon.

And construction on the long-overdue Harrison City/Export Road and Route 130 interchange in Harrison City will begin later this year

Speaking of transportation, earlier this year my colleagues and I passed a resolution I authored imploring the state to put together a funding package for transportation. I understand that no one – including me – wants to pay more for anything. But the cost of inaction is worse. We have too many inadequate, unsafe and outdated roads. The time is now. The appetite is there for some state leaders. Others need some courage to do what’s needed. I would encourage you all to contact your state representative and senator to show your support. We have 10 days left.

Also in those next 10 days the state will pass a budget that will have a profound impact on county government and the important services we provide for the most vulnerable. I am hopeful – yet not optimistic – that we are not forced to deal with more cuts to seniors’ services, those with disabilities or addictions, and children at risk of abuse. My lobbying will continue – as I hope yours will too – those folks need us to fight for them.

I hope I was able demonstrate for you the state of Westmoreland County – or at least some of it. There’s more to tell, of course, and I remain available any time to anyone who wants to learn more. Part of my job has to be to communicate directly and tell it like it is, even when it’s uncomfortable – like exposing a bad bond deal made by my colleagues that raises your debt and included little to no competition to get the best value, or trying to reign in a reckless sheriff who is putting the county at risk. I know no other way than to be open with you and the taxpayers of Westmoreland County. It’s who I am, and it’s what you deserve.

So, thank you all again for coming, and for your generosity and friendship. I am here for you. See you again soon.