On the 177th day of their administration in the Indiana County Court House — and after 107 of governing under an unprecedented state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic — the county board of commissioners delivered an online summary of the “state of the county” Wednesday in a question-and-answer program sponsored by the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce.
The commissioners mulled how Indiana County could be a leader among western Pennsylvania counties in what one area resident suggested is a regional trend of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents moving away from their urban workplaces and working remotely from rural homes.
Being wired for it — or better still, wireless — could make that plausible, the commissioners said.
“Broadband and connection to the online economy is crucial, to say it simply,” Commissioner Sherene Hess said.
“Let’s take the issue of traveling to here and there from now on,” Commissioner Chairman Michael Keith said. “When you can do Zoom as we have been doing the last three or four months, that gives us more time to actually be more productive. So, yes, broadband is going to play a big part in those plans.”
Economic sprawl, is what Commissioner Robin Gorman said the trend has been called.
“As we are beginning to work with our community with regard to diversifying and figuring out how to embrace entrepreneurism, keep some of our young people here and create new business, what’s been coming into play is called ‘ecosystems.’
“Now it has become states that want to contract services with the best talent and capability where it can be had, but in an ecosystem environment that can be created where you can do that from a totally different place, all electronically.”
Deploying the technology and cultivating the acceptance of the possibilities are critical, Gorman said. She said that echoes the sentiments expressed last year at an Indiana County hearing of the state Senate Communications & Technology Committee.
“To hear the different sectors talk about the competitiveness of our future and why this is so essential to us — manufacturing, health care — we cannot afford to let this issue drop. We need every citizen connected, we need to use that as a draw to businesses. If we want them to locate here, we’ve got to have that infrastructure so they can be competitive in the world of how we all work now.”
The fundamental importance of a robust electronic communication infrastructure was woven throughout the commissioners’ program Wednesday, not only in the policies they promoted but in the very way it was delivered to county residents.
The 90-minute session found the commissioners underscoring the issues they have made their priorities in the past six months, and in many cases held over from the past administration.
“Challenges to make Indiana County a better place to live, work, shop and just enjoy living in our own communities throughout the county,” Keith said in his prepared opening statement. “We look at growth in many ways, such as jobs, businesses, population — but the growth comes from all those values to make growth successful.”
They’re working to extend broadband internet access to outlying sections of the county, the commissioners said. Last week, they signed contracts for Wi-Fi and cell service extensions in Green and Brush Valley townships, they reminded viewers. Studies are under way to determine service areas. The county will set aside a share of CARES money — awarded for recovery from the pandemic-related economic downturn — and is applying for more grants to pay for it.
They called for every county resident to complete their U.S. Census forms.
“I have no regrets about my position,” Gorman said in her opening statement, after acknowledging the coronavirus pandemic and racial tension that has gripped the nation in the last four months.
Like Keith, Gorman is a freshman in the commissioners’ office.
“I am absolutely — this was God’s chosen path for me … and I’m enjoying every minute of it, and I’m extremely proud” of the work of the county’s staff of department leaders, emergency services and human services.
In a look back at the county’s status and response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the commissioners praised the work of technology staffers in the courthouse to shift business online to the county website and to the Zoom platform for conducting public business.
The commissioners said that planning in January resulted in emergency and medical services in the county being prepared to manage the crisis.
Zoom was the platform again for the state-of-the-county program Wednesday and remains the commissioners’ choice for public contact for the foreseeable future.
The veteran on the board, second-term Commissioner Hess, said she has relied on her experiences to shape her vision for the future of the county.
“What I’ve learned is it takes a lot of patience,” Hess said. “The road to finding solutions to social challenges is very winding. The barriers are many. Planning and implementing community and economic development projects is very convoluted sometimes. Public safety is an ever-moving target.”
Program viewers didn’t prompt the commissioners to plow much new ground with their questions.
The county courthouse and the administration in John Sutton Hall at Indiana University of Pennsylvania are closely bonded and in regular communication, the commissioners assured viewers.
Gorman came to the courthouse after 20 years in the IUP president’s office, and sounded much like a campus staffer in her informed account of how the university is preparing for the return of students for the fall semester.
They pledged to be “ever mindful” of county taxpayers.
The years-long campaign for reform of the real estate tax system in Pennsylvania has the new board of commissioners’ support but doesn’t have their prediction of a solution any time soon.
They pledged support for efforts to improve race relations, to hear out expressions of protest and promote unity, in response to a viewer’s question concerning the diverse population of the IUP campus. They decried the pockets of racism that are evident in Indiana County.
“This is probably not going to sit well with a lot of my viewers,” Gorman said. “If we’re talking about equal rights and liberties of all people, then it has to be about all people.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. … In every culture, in every origin, in every part of our society, you will have good people who do really good things and help other people, and contribute and engage. And you’re going to have those people always that just don’t mean well, and their intentions are bad and they are hurtful. And there you have to draw the line, and that’s hard to do without somebody criticizing that you’ve stepped over a place that makes them uncomfortable.”
On the effort by Gov. Tom Wolf to include Pennsylvania in a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which is predicted to spell doom for the coal-fired electric generating stations that employ hundreds in Indiana County, the commissioners have been and remain against it, and called for a drawn-out schedule that would allow time to develop alternatives and avoid an economic hit on the area.
Agriculture remains the No. 1 industry in Pennsylvania and Indiana County, the commissioners said. They promised support for elimination of regulatory barriers that they said hinder the transition of farms from generations of family operation to their management as small businesses.
Sentiment for farms to survive and thrive also is a pillar of the Indiana County Sustainable Economic Development Task Force, Hess reminded viewers.