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Homer City Community Garden produces first harvest

HOMER CITY — While the creators and organizers of the Indiana Community Garden celebrate the 10th anniversary of the project on the ground of J.S. Mack Community Center along South Sixth Street, perhaps the biggest fruit of that garden has sprouted six miles away.

The local volunteers who have launched the Homer City Community Garden, with no shortage of guidance from the Indiana project, celebrated their first harvest on Aug. 2.

Garden Committee Chairperson Misty Hunt told the borough council that produce from the summer growing season has been gathered and the fall plantings are under way.

The garden was built on a 28-foot by 64-foot patch of InTown Park next to the basketball court and kiddies’ playground. The borough owns the park but the garden, like the other recreation assets, is administered by Homer Center Parks and Recreation.

To lay out the garden, volunteers covered the grass with a layer of cardboard and topped that with a few inches of mulch, all provided free by the Indiana County Recycling Center. The patch now is enclosed by a wire fence and its planting areas, in layers of elements that Hunt called “dirt lasagna,” are contained in four raised beds, each 12 feet by 4 feet and 22 inches tall.

Hunt led council on a whirlwind tour of the project by way of a computer slideshow at the outset of the board’s monthly business meeting. She recited a long list of community supporters who made it possible: a handful of businesses who made modest cash donations, volunteers who worked hours in construction, the borough crews who helped with trucking dirt and mulch, and Lowe’s Home Improvement store who shaved almost $400 off the prices paid for lumber and other materials.

The project so far has come in under the $2,000 budgeted by Parks and Recreation for making it a reality, Hunt said.

Later, she gave an on-site update on how Homer City has profited from the garden. About 40 people so far have cultivated small shares of the earth and will enjoy what they’ve grown.

It is an honor system, Hunt said. No one pays to use it, and all are entitled to take home what they grow.

“They’re going to come and work and eat. There’s no money involved. That’s what’s a little bit different from other community gardens that will rent you a plot for $15 or $20 and you do what you want in that plot,” Hunt said. “We have hope and a prayer that everybody will respect it. Everything has gone well so far.”

Now that it’s proven itself, committee member Kelly Elliott said, project leaders are ready to search for more community support.

“We haven’t really hit hard with the bigger businesses yet,” Elliott said. “But we have letters ready to go.”

“We wanted to get the plants in the ground and now that we’ve done that, we can add some more beds and do other things,” Hunt said. “Make it look prettier, add some lights. That’s when we’ll have to start reaching out.”

In her presentation to council. Hunt showed before-and-after photos of the garden site, and step-by-step photos of gardeners tilling the soil. Parents were shown helping their children to work the earth. She said the committee wants the garden to provide educational opportunities.

“Teach them young,” Hunt explained. “We want to teach them so that they can do this someday, too. The idea is to get the ones who know what they’re doing to teach the ones that don’t know what they’re doing.”

“When we get the sign up saying everyone is welcome ... hopefully we’ll teach the youth a little about responsibility, and make them feel like they own that space, too,” Elliott said.

Parks and Recreation board member Aaron Lehman said the security cameras installed recently in the park would be positioned to monitor the garden. After lighting is installed, he said, the recreation board is considering construction of a pavilion to give gardeners a shady place to relax after their work.

The Homer City Community Garden committee posts photos and progress reports of their work on Facebook, demonstrates techniques in TikTok videos and promotes the project mission, “to provide a space in our community to work together to grow sustainable food by educating each other in garden techniques” in an online link to Hunt’s Power Point slideshow presentation.

In other business Tuesday, the borough council:

• Repeated its authorization for the administration to file an application to Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for a grant of $997,700 from the Multimodal Transportation Fund to help pay for the Main Street Multimodal Infrastructure Improvements project.

• Granted permission to Disobedient Spirits owner Bob Begg to offer outdoor alcoholic beverage service on the sidewalk outside the craft distillery along North Main Street.

• Agreed to a series of street closings related to the Hoodlebug Festival scheduled next month. Church Street, adjacent to the main festival booths and tents across from the Homer City fire station, would be closed Sept. 10 to 12 to allow for set up and cleanup, and — with PennDOT permission — Main Street also would be closed to allow for a parade and 5k race on Sept. 11, the day of the festival.

• Heard Mayor Arlene Wanatosky’s recommendation to establish a capital expense fund and annually allocate money for it from the general budget. She said the fund could be gradually built to make periodic big-ticket purchases such as a police car.

• Briefly discussed but made no decision on the possible enactment of a tax abatement plan through a LERTA ordinance. Such an ordinance would encourage local investment in property improvements by delaying and gradually collecting the real estate tax on the increased value of a property.

Citizens' Ambulance renews quest for borough, township support

HOMER CITY — Cost-cutting and bottom-scraping have put Indiana County’s primary emergency medical response and ambulance transport company in slightly better financial position than a year ago, but one-time grants that Citizens’ Ambulance Service received this year need to be repeated to help the agency remain solvent, Homer City Borough council members were told Tuesday.

Without the same support again, Citizens’ traditional around-the-clock response and staffing of six ambulance stations throughout Indiana County can’t be maintained, according to Indiana County Commissioner Mike Keith, a member of Citizens’ board of directors.

“If Citizens’ isn’t able to hit their 2023 budget, and a shortfall of $1.5 million — they’re here to tell you and I’m here to tell you that Citizens’ will not be operating six units anymore,” Keith said. “Services will be dropped. That’s a fact. It’s a business; if you can’t afford it, it’s not going to happen.”

A year ago, Citizens’ Ambulance leaders made a concerted appeal to township after township, borough after borough, for local budget money to buoy the service through another year. They received more than $100,000 from Indiana County municipalities including a donation of $10,000 that Homer City included in its 2022 budget.

Now on their 2022 campaign for municipal support, Citizens’ executive board President Bill Staffen and accounting manager Dave Shaffer suggested that local taxes could go a long way toward keeping the ambulances in operation on an ongoing basis.

Many area boroughs and townships have for years collected a tax to support local volunteer fire departments, but Rayne Township this year was the first Indiana County municipality to collect a tax dedicated exclusively to support ambulance service. The state allows taxes to be set at up to 0.5 mill on real estate values.

In Rayne, the tax averages about $50 per home, Shaffer said.

A tax wouldn’t be their first choice, he said.

More than anything, Citizens’ would rather see every household in the county pay an annual $75 membership in the ambulance company. But for 2022, only 5,628 homes in the service area (about 15.6 percent) have paid for memberships.

“If the people in this county would participate, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Staffen told council.

Members get a 50 percent reduction in charges for ambulance service not paid by insurance.

With shortfalls in memberships, Shaffer said line-item budget contributions from all of the county’s 38 boroughs and townships — not only the small number that supported Citizens’ this year — would ease the budget stress.

“When you look at the asks that we’re giving to all the municipalities, if everybody would buck up … we’re in a happier place,” Shaffer said.

Memberships and municipal budget donations are preferred but after that, Shaffer said, imposing a tax is the next-to-last resort.

“We’re just looking for those little things, and when people come back and say, ‘you’re going to want a tax to support that,’” Shaffer said. “Well, I’d rather say ‘tax’ than say, ‘you’re not going to have this service.’

“When you do the math … (in some areas) it’s less than $50 a household per year. And I get angry when I look at what people are spending on their cellphone per month, what they’re spending on television per month, what they’re spending on garbage per month.”

Citizens’ could be called cash-strapped or struggling but so could nearly every similar ambulance organization in Pennsylvania, its leaders acknowledge. Like the others, Citizens’ finances have been stretched thin by the costs of meeting government rules on the quality of its vehicles and equipment and the training of its paramedics. This year, inflation has pounded the budget. Citizens’ already has overspent its budgeted gasoline expenses by $32,000, Shaffer said.

At the same time that annual inflation has pushed up the “cost of readiness” — the basic expense of having people on duty 24 hours a day — Citizens’ has seen sharp declines in membership and corporate contributions with the loss of coal companies and manufacturers, specifically Syntron and FMC in Homer City.

Yet Citizens’ level of support in Homer City exceeds the county average, according to Shaffer’s report: of the borough’s 759 households, 143 (18.8 percent) have paid for memberships this year.

Council members made no immediate decision on what level of support the borough could give the ambulance in the coming year. Council faces a Dec. 31 deadline to enact its next budget for 2023.

In other business:

• Council agreed to advertise a job description for a secretary and administrative assistant for the borough and Central Indiana County Water Authority. The borough’s secretary for 25 years, Karen Valyo, last month tendered her resignation to take effect in late September.

• Council authorized Police Chief Anthony Jellison to scrap police car No. 443, a 2007 Ford Expedition. Mayor Arlene Wanatosky asked council to use the borough’s allocation of federal COVID-19 disaster recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to pay for a new police car.

• Wanatosky also reported that the introductory meeting of a community crime watch program generated “much interest” and that those joining the program plan to meet on the second Wednesday of each month in the council room at the borough building.

Saltsburg solicitors to get "do not knock" lists (copy)

SALTSBURG — Borough officials have approved a “do not knock” ordinance.

At its meeting on Aug. 1, Saltsburg Borough Council passed what is being called Ordinance No. 292, an amendment to the borough’s existing solicitation ordinance.

Local residents are being offered access to a “do not knock” list, that would be handed to salespeople and others who receive permits to solicit door-to-door in Saltsburg.

Councilman Abe Kline moved to approve the ordinance, while Councilman Joe Penta seconded the motion.

Borough officials advised anyone wanting to join this list to sign up at the borough office, 320 Point St.

Also, according to minutes supplied by borough Secretary/Treasurer Krystin J. Kelly, Joan Adams voiced concern for borough benches outside of Indiana County Housing Authority’s McGregor Manor.

Public Works Director Don Kelly said supplies were given to an individual to clean and paint those benches, but the work has not been done yet.

Several residents voiced concern about the stop sign at Cathedral and Washington streets, saying they see far too many people running the sign and feel someone is going to get hurt one day because of the volume of traffic there.

Police Officer-in-Charge Don Isherwood discussed public safety matters during the work session that precedes the monthly voting meeting, and told council his department’s white Ford Explorer did not pass inspection because the part that is needed can not be acquired.

He said 59 parking tickets, two warnings and nine citations were issued last month, while there was one medical assist and one report of an identity theft.

Isherwood also said a high grass letter had been sent out.

Vacant properties also are a source of concern. Resident Barb Geisler raised the matter, which led to a discussion and a decision to consult borough Solicitor Wayne Kablack.

In his sewage report, Don Kelly said a spare pump needed for the sewage system will cost roughly $20,000. In his streets report, Kelly said new “Children at Play” signs had been placed in various locations.

Councilwoman Lorrie Johnson moved to donate $150 to the Saltsburg Volunteer Fire Department’s annual Golf outing. Penta seconded the motion and council approved it.

Penta made a motion to accept the resignation of pool board member Wendy Vietz. Kline seconded the motion and council approved it.

Those interested in Vietz’s position can send a letter to Krystin Kelly at the borough office or to Councilwoman Michelle Gardner Jesko.

Looking at upcoming events, Jesko said yard sales will be held Sept. 10 while a Car Cruise will be held Sept. 16.

Anyone can sign up for either event at the borough building.

Kline said he plans on holding a Corn Hole Tournament at the Salt Center Oct. 29 and a bluegrass concert in November.

The 2022 Knotweed Festival Quilt Show will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Campbell St. in Blairsville, behind the Blairsville Public Library. More than 45 quilts will be on display and organizers encourage visitors to stop by and vote for their favorite, both vintage and new. The owner of the winning quilt entry will receive a gift card. This beautiful handmade quilt top was found by local residents in an old trunk.