Every year, I host a “State of the County” event. I would like to share my complete remarks to help you better understand what is happening in the county, and in county government..
Thank you all for being here. I am honored by your attendance and so grateful for your support.
Thanks too, for your support in last year’s election. I have been in office now for six years – and have done at least that many breakfasts – and I’ve learned a lot in that time. For starters, I’ve realized that as Commissioner there is no value in focusing only on all that is good about our wonderful county, but that we need to be open and honest about our challenges and work toward solutions together.
So as I lay out the State of our County to you this morning, I intend to put it all out there – the good and the not-so-good – in order for us to begin a conversation about how to make it all better, for all of us, for everyone who depends on us, for our communities, and for the next generation. And I do so with enthusiasm and optimism that we can make Westmoreland County the best it can be.
So let’s start with some good…
As has been the case for the past several years, Westmoreland’s unemployment rate remains below the state average. Recent statistics reveal a 5.2% unemployment rate – just a tick below the state’s 5.3% rate. Our cost-of-living remains comfortably below the U.S. average and is considerably lower than our neighbors in Allegheny County. Housing starts are stable. And manufacturing – after a rather significant dip early this century – has been a consistent force in our local economy and employment – about 13 percent – which paces us ahead of both the state and federal averages.
Our 17 county-owned industrial parks continue to be major factor, employing more than 9,000 workers, and housing major corporations like Philips Respironics, Siemens, and others. Just two weeks ago we were at an open house for a new Freightliner facility built at our Distribution Park in East Huntingdon. And we’re continuing to work on developing the Waltz Mills Rail Park in Sewickley Township to create even more opportunities.
Realizing that successful businesses need skilled workers we have partnered with our Workforce Investment Board, our Community College, and all 17 county school districts to strategize ways to better train students for the high-tech, and high-paying, jobs of today and tomorrow.
We’ve learned over the past several years that county government is best when it’s proactive. It can be a powerful force for community development, and really the last line of defense when no one else will step up.
Our new Land Bank is now actively resurrecting abandoned and tax-delinquent properties – both residential and commercial – in 17 communities. The signature project, of course, being the former Monsour Medical Center, which the Land Bank acquired. That now demolished monstrosity is a prime redevelopment opportunity along Route 30 in Jeannette.
That same aggressive approach will soon rid that city of another long-standing eyesore – the former Jeannette Glass plant. After years of fights and failed negotiations with the former owner we finally acquired that 13-acre abandoned industrial site through a tax sale. Come fall – after a long legal process – the county can finally proceed with cleaning up another mess.
The mess that has proven especially difficult is the drug abuse and overdose epidemic that is plaguing the county. Last year was another record year for overdose deaths, and we’re on pace for another record this year. Some long-term solutions, like the Drug Court I so strongly supported, are finally in place, as well as other diversionary programs to divert addicts out of the criminal justice system and into treatment. But the problem is not only persisting; it’s growing.
So this year we kicked off a new approach to treat the epidemic like the public health crisis it is, hiring an executive director of our Overdose Task Force to implement a systematic, comprehensive approach based on the successful “Project Lazurus” model used in North Carolina.
Meantime, our county parks are growing – we just added 28 acres to Cedar Creek Park in Rostraver thanks to the Westmoreland Land Trust I helped found. Westmoreland Manor, through new leadership and a new administrator, has begun the hard work of repairing the nursing home’s reputation that was hit so hard last year. And we’ve welcomed the one millionth commercial passenger to our Arnold Palmer Airport, thanks to our partnership with Spirit Airlines.
Now, for the unfortunate dose of harsh reality that we must acknowledge. Despite all of our assets, Westmoreland County is experiencing an aging and declining population, which is greatly diminishing the county’s status and attractiveness. Our population is down to about 360,000. To put that in perspective, the county was about 390,000 at its peak in 1980. That’s big drop. Come fall, my 5-year-old will be part of the smallest Kindergarten class ever at Hempfield Area School District. And the mid-decade census estimates released earlier this year revealed that our county was hit harder than any other in the region.
In many ways we’ve spent the past five years sort of managing our decline instead of being proactive to fix it. We simply cannot allow ourselves to do nothing and hope it gets better. We owe it to the residents of this county, both present and future, to take some decisive action. And that’s why we need to invest in our job centers and our core communities to help maximize our assets and to prepare a path for a better future.
That process has just begun with a long overdue update to the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The goal is to attract, develop, and retain a diverse and stable population that will sustain a healthy economy and strong communities. To really document what’s good and what needs improved, and how others outside the county perceive us.
So as we develop the plan, let’s stop managing our decline. Let’s be bolder. Let’s think bigger. And we can maximize never-before-seen market opportunities to make it happen.
Westmoreland County government will be debt free by 2024. That’s right, no debt. No bonds. No loans. Nothing. And money today has never been cheaper. Let’s take advantage of this very happy coincidence.
There has never been a better time to invest in ready-to-build sites. Our industrial parks have proven to be the backbone of our local economy. It is the best way to recruit new business and prevent our established employers from shopping around to other areas. Anyone remember the Kennametal threats to move last fall?
We need to do better investing in our communities. We should consider matching dollar for dollar federal Community Development Block Grant money – a program proven to work – to maximize investments in infrastructure, like water and sewer, roads, sidewalks and parks.
We need to improve our quality of life. I propose establishing a rotating loan fund through our Land Trust to preserve those areas of special interest, whether they be recreational, ecological or historical.
For only a couple more bucks on every property sold we can maximize the powers of our Land Bank to acquire, rehabilitate and make productive again abandoned and tax-delinquent properties. While also improving access for the physically disabled, like our veterans or those with developmental disabilities.
And we need to be more aggressive in the tools we already have, but underuse. Programs like Tax Incremental Financing to help pay for the public improvements to provide the path for private investment.
And more good timing. Through recent changes to the state’s lodging tax – paid by out-of-area overnight visitors I must add – we have a new opportunity to work with our tourism promotion partners to brand and market Westmoreland County to new visitors, businesses and potential residents.
I know, all of this costs money. And it involves some taxes, some fees and some borrowing. But the timing is perfect and our situation is, frankly, crucial. The cost of inaction will cost more in the long-run.
My Commissioner colleagues and I have established a strong working relationship this year that involves the rightful give-and-take and a healthy exchange of ideas. I look forward to working with them to build on these ideas and make them even better with their perspective and expertise.
The future State of our County is up to us. And the decisions we make today will determine its future strength, or its decline. I look forward to working with all of you, my colleagues, and the residents of our proud county to reposition us back to our rightful spot as a regional leader.