Indiana County’s legislators praised both a spirit of cooperation and the fruits of such teamwork at an Eggs and Issues Breakfast Friday at the Indiana Country Club.
“We care about making this place better,” said Jim Struzzi, president of the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce.
As he opened the event, Struzzi noted the new Joseph Land Business Park off of Route 119 in Homer City as an example of such teamwork. Groundbreaking for the 27.5-acre industrial park — the first of its kind in Center Township — was on Wednesday.
“No one there was plugging for themselves,” he said. “They were waving a flag for Indiana County.”
Sponsored by the chamber of commerce, Friday’s event brought together the county’s legislative delegation to answer a series of submitted questions.
Panelists included state Sen. Don White; state Reps. Dave Reed and Sam Smith; Shawn Conway, aide to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey; and county commissioner Rodney Ruddock.
Among key topics were state pension reform, transportation and state store privatization, as well as welfare, gun control and health care.
“It’s good to hear from our state representatives and senator, for us to hear what they have to say about the issues,” Struzzi said. “It’s important to be moving forward.”
The second of its kind in two years, the panel discussion was attended by local government officials, business leaders and representatives of nonprofit organizations.
“We all benefit from that and we all find a way to work together,” Reed, R-Indiana, said of those attending.
Ruddock described the event as an important opportunity. Others on the panel agreed.
“I’m very thankful to be in an environment like this where everyone pulls on the same end of the rope,” said White, R-Indiana. He praised the chamber for being “as strong as any in Pennsylvania.”
While questions — with the exception of tax reassessment — touched on statewide issues, legislators and officials focused on how those in the county were affected and what solutions are possible.
“I think we discussed several key issues for Indiana County. It was very important,” Struzzi said.
In response to questions relating to the rising cost of state employee and teacher pensions, Smith, R-Punxsutawney, spoke in favor of a defined contribution plan to replace the current defined benefit plan.
The decision must be made, he said, to “draw a line in the sand” when it comes to changes with new hires, while school districts’ projected costs continue to absorb the contributions.
He also said that strong possibilities exist to move the defined contribution plans forward, but there is debate on how to address that unfunded liability.
“In my opinion, the governor’s plan was the right plan,” White said. “I felt that was the right way to go.
“A lot of the issues we’re concerned about here, those funds are being eaten up by pension obligations,” he added.
Ruddock addressed a question about the expertise of those employed to conduct industrial and commercial evaluations for the county’s tax reassessment.
He described the appraisal professionals from Evaluator Services and Technology as “strong with commercial and industrial appraisal.” The firm also has a strong background with the Clean and Green program, which is important for the region’s agricultural base, he said.
That program offers tax relief to eligible property owners who maintain their land for agricultural or forest use.
In addition to EST’s certified appraisers and 54 data collectors, Ruddock said the county also will be working with Realtors who have strong commercial property backgrounds. The goal in bringing them in as advisers, Ruddock said, was to be fair to residents.
“We think we have it all in place to do that and we are going to move forward with our EST team,” he said.
State store privatization
A question submitted for White was what prevented privatization from happening during the state budget process and whether state store privatization could become a reality in Pennsylvania.
White said he didn’t think that a proposed model in which liquor licenses would be sold to beer distributors would work in rural areas. Instead, he said, he believes that supermarkets should be able to buy the licenses.
“It’s certainly not a free market enterprise as I know it,” he said. Privatization, he added, should be about access, which those in rural areas should have as much as others.
Basic Education Funding
Smith, the speaker of the House, said that rural school districts are probably getting 50 percent support from the state in response to a question relating to the state’s Basic Education Funding program and whether Indiana County schools may be able to receive additional grant money based on regional representation. The new formula could be detrimental to rural schools, he said.
“The ‘hold harmless’ is as good as it’s going to get,” he said, referring to a clause in the state constitution that allows schools with decreasing enrollment to continue to receive a minimum level of state funding.
Poverty and welfare
In light of a recent trip by Reed to gather information about poverty in the state, someone asked whether legislation is likely that could make those with multiple drug violations ineligible for welfare.
A law doing just that has been on the books in Pennsylvania since 2011, Reed said.
The law focuses on those with prior drug convictions, he said.
Of his recent efforts, he said, the “goal has been to look at a new discussion on poverty.”
Smith agreed with the need for a fresh conversation. He said that there is a need to refocus taxpayer dollars.
“They need to be focusing on results and they must be helping people out of poverty, rather than trapping them in poverty,” Smith said.
With the recent transportation bill exceeding budget caps, Toomey moved to have it rewritten, said Conway, standing in for the senator.
The $54 million in spending proposed exceeded limits set by the Budget Control Act by more than $5 billion.
His answer came in response to a question about what issues prevented transportation funding from passing. Another question asked about the potential fixes for transportation funding problems.
Those on the panel cited the size and number of roads, the cost of maintenance and the need to streamline project completion as some of the factors surrounding the issue.
UPMC and Highmark
Asked to weigh in on the ongoing UPMC-Highmark negotiations, White, who has participated in the talks, described the situation as “frustrating” but had praise for both health care systems.
Smith spoke up with two concerns relating to the matter: about patients having access to the facility of their choice in the future and how developments could impact community hospitals throughout the county.
A question submitted sought comment from legislators and, in particular, Toomey’s stance on gun control.
Conway said Toomey is a longtime Second Amendment and National Rifle Association supporter.
Toomey had been concerned about the possibility of restrictions on gun laws in the wake of incidents such as the shootings in Newtown, Conn., according to Conway.
“The senator believes in keeping guns from criminals and the extremely mentally ill,” he said.