Every year I am invited to address the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce as part of its annual State of the County event. This time I used the opportunity to lay out my goals, and our challenges, for the next four years.
The following is the complete text of my remarks…
Thank you all for being here today. And thank you to the Chamber of Commerce for hosting this annual event. Over the past few years I have focused my remarks here on a specific topic. But this year I am going to take a different approach, one that takes the broader view – perhaps, more closely resembling a true “State of the County” address – that spells out my goals, and our challenges, for the next four years.
It is impossible to speak about any level of government these days without first addressing the budget. Unlike our friends at the state and the federal government the county has to pass a budget on time. And, frankly, we need to do a better job with your tax money. Not only making sure that it is spent frugally, but also that it is spent smartly.
The state of our county budget is getting stronger.
As the Tribune-Review reported in November, just four years ago Westmoreland County had a surplus of nearly $42 million on the books. We ended 2015 with only $16 million in the bank.
The process to change that trend is underway. This year we’ve cut the operating deficit from close to $6 million to $4.8 million. It is the start of more responsible budgeting.
I’ve always believed, too, in leadership by example, and our latest budget incorporates that belief. We’ve cut an expensive lobbyist contract that’s going to force we commissioners to work a little harder and smarter. And we’re making the first changes to commissioners’ healthcare in a decade.
The state of Westmoreland Manor is unfortunately poor, but we’re going to make it better.
Our county-owned geriatric home last year was downgraded from a five-star facility to a one-star facility. We have to fix it. Just this week we demanded that the private management firm that runs the Manor pay a $14,000 federal fine for its poor performance. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for their failure. We’ll hold this company accountable, as we work toward a management change.
The state of the county economy is strong.
Westmoreland County has long enjoyed an unemployment rate that is below the national average. That trend continues as our unemployment rate is 4.4 percent today, while nationally it is five percent. The 142 companies and 9,500 employees in our county-owned industrial parks play a key role in that success, so we’re going to do more.
I pledge to you today that in the next four years we will break ground on a new 150-acre industrial park in Sewickley Township, in the vicinity of the Westinghouse Waltz Mills facility, bringing more business opportunities and more jobs.
Transportation, of course, is a key to economic development. So as discussion continues on some drawn-out, long-debated projects we’re going to focus hard on what can be done, and done very soon, and have an immediate impact. Projects like a Turnpike slip ramp in Penn Township, which is practically ready-to-build, that will create new business opportunities and alleviate congestion in this growing area of the county.
The state of our core communities is – vulnerable.
So we need to be more proactive and creative in how we work with them. Whether it’s helping renovate and reopen a historic theatre in Irwin, rebuild sanitary lines in Vandergrift or tear down an abandoned hospital in Jeannette the county has always played an important role in community development. The new Land Bank has been a powerful new tool.
So now it’s time to take the next step.
The Land Bank gives us a unique opportunity to not only acquire, but to rehabilitate homes for average families. Let’s use this opportunity to renovate homes to encourage homeownership and stabilize neighborhoods. We need to be more creative in how we use established county resources, whether we’re directly funding the rehabilitation or loaning families money to do it themselves. We need to explore ways to make improvements to homes for people of all ages who are permanently disabled, like a paralyzed veteran. There is a profound need that our current programs aren’t meeting.
The state of county human service programs is, frankly, mixed.
While we continue to provide excellent services for people with developmental disabilities, and children at risk of abuse or neglect, we need major improvements in two important areas – drug prevention and recovery services, and paratransit transportation.
We will close out 2015 with 125 unnecessary deaths from drug overdoses. All of these are preventable. They shouldn’t happen. We’ve had some success with our Drug Overdose Task Force, creating a new Drug Court and promoting the use of Naloxone, but clearly more needs to be done. We need to refocus, repurpose, or perhaps even recreate, our collective efforts to have more effective results.
Further, we need to fix the well-documented service problems with paratransit transportation. The effort to consolidate through one provider, while well-intentioned, has led to too many missed rides, long waits and other inconveniencies for seniors and people with disabilities. While individual problems have been fixed, the systematic issue persists. We owe it to seniors and their families to make it better.
Finally, the state of your Board of County Commissioner is cooperative.
We’ve begun this year with a new sense of cooperation, teamwork, and perhaps following last year’s election civility. Harrisburg and Washington have shown us that little gets done when politicians are at each other’s throats. So if we’re going to accomplish what I’ve laid out here today, and more, we’re going to do it together.
And we’re going to do it with you. With your ideas and your expertise. So I know I speak on behalf of my colleagues when I thank you for your contributions to our county and look forward to working with you over the next four years.