Commissioner Candidates Q&A
Commissioner Candidates Respond to Questions
The Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce encourages everyone to vote in the May 21 Primary. To assist you with deciding who to vote for, we have asked the candidates for Huntingdon County Commissioner to respond to three questions on issues important to us. Candidates were asked to limit their responses to 200 words and no changes have been made to the answers submitted.
There are five Republican candidates, which are Nancy MacNamara, Gary O’Korn, Mark Sather, Scott Walls and Barry Wright. Democrat, Jeff Thomas is running unopposed.
Question # 1. How would you direct funding to accelerate the County’s pace of business growth?
Nancy MacNamara: “I would first look at current funding – that top to bottom review I have cited in my campaign. I am confident when an honest, hard look is given to our revenues, expenses, personnel resources, real estate holdings and contracts, we will find areas where money can be reallocated. We have a business and industry entity that has seen no growth in county support for 15 years. They are limited in their reach to larger markets because they don’t have the required tools. Hard decisions on where money is spent can correct that.
Simultaneously, we need to ensure our tax rolls are up-to-date. I understand there are properties for which municipalities have reported additions/improvements to the county to initiate updated property tax assessments. Some of those cases have taken a decade to actually be corrected on the tax rolls, if at all. The money has not come in because the county hasn’t asked for it – money that could be used to promote business and economic growth. There must be a standard for follow through on this very important, revenue generating function for growing our base.
Shared responsibilities and funding in our six-county comprehensive plan will encourage regional development while lightening the financial load on Huntingdon County. Every grant and program for which we are eligible needs to be pursued. Economic development must take first priority for our county to recover from the industry losses of the last decade. We need to break the current cycle of tax and spend and begin the cycle of cuts and economic growth.”
Gary O’Korn: “Once in office, we will analyze the appropriation the County provides to Huntingdon County Business & Industry. We will discuss the issues with HCB&I and ways that we can work together to promote business growth.
We can’t just throw money at the issue, we need a proactive plan. We have most of our partner agencies participate in Partners for Economic Progress (PEP) and we all need to be aware of plans that are put in place and to work together to achieve them.
In the past, I have worked with the farming community to be involved so that they are aware of programs and to be partners as we move forward.
I will support the use of a full-time County Grant Writer to work on funding for the county and also work with businesses and community organizations. Other counties have shown great success in bringing funding to their area.
I will personally work with State and Federal agencies, Representatives, the PA Manufacturing Association, educational institutions and business owners to attract more business to our area.
As a business owner, I understand that it is not just money that will allow for success but the passion and partnership to get it done. Are there new and innovative ways to be successful?”
Mark Sather: “Expanding upon my many years of experience in business and utilizing skills developed through earning my degree from Juniata College in Business Administration and Human Relations I would enhance the opportunities for continued growth through a strategic focused plan. A plan that continues with initiatives established and in working with many of our County Partners through the Commissioner’s PEP Committee, (Partners for Economic Progress). The PEP Committee is charged with the task of achieving objectives in 5 key areas; supply chain improvement, business development, infrastructure, workforce development and marketing. The marketing committee efforts can be viewed online at the County’s website: http://www.huntingdoncounty.net
The County’s designated economic development organization HCBI, (Huntingdon County Business and Industry), does receive County budgeted appropriations in attracting, expanding and retaining business opportunities. Additional funding is provided to HCBI to manage the County’s EZ, (Enterprise Zone) Loan program providing the financial lift for an expanding or starting business.
As a Commissioner I have sought outside funding that does not directly impact the County’s general fund. Additional funding sources from working together with SAPDC, (Southern Alleghenies and Development Corporation. DCED, HCBI and the Huntingdon Career Link provides funding for BREP, (Business Retention and Expansion Program), now referred to as Engage. As a Board of Commissioner’s I continued to work with Southern Alleghenies in approving and utilizing ARC, (Appalachian Regional Commission) to support and fund the position within HCBI of an Entrepreneur & Innovation Coach, Director of Business Development with the task of assisting potential business startups.”
Jeff Thomas: “The county has many streams of funding to attract new businesses and to help existing businesses expand and prosper. We must keep these streams in place and continue to look for new sources where and when possible. The county works with all its partnering agencies to accomplish this. One recent example is being able to create a new position at HCB&I through an Appalachian Regional Commission Power grant. This position will help with entrepreneurship along with other duties to help attract business and help existing business expand in our county. We need to keep the KOZ, KIZ, EZ loan and other programs to help with Tax incentives, tax credits and low interest loans and grants in place. As well as workforce development programs to train the ever changing needs of today’s employers. The rail authority has started a feasibility study through SAP&DC grant into the possibility of opening the rail spur into the Huntingdon business park. The rail authority was also tasked to explore the possibilities of rail in the Mount Union Business Park along with exploring options for the EBT railroad in Rockhill. The county needs to continue to improve our roads to major arteries such as I-99 and the turnpike. In today’s world we need to expand Broadband to everyone in the County for business growth, education and medicine (TEL- medicine). We need to continue to market our county as a great place to live and work. We must never be satisfied and always work to create and retain jobs.”
Scott Walls: “There are several ways to assist business growth. Infrastructure improvements to support the movement of goods and facilitate development is of great need in our county. Industrial rail service is very economical and has become highly sought after for businesses looking for locations. Huntingdon County is fortunate to have the Norfolk Southern main line running through our county along with several inactive rail sidings that have been closed. Last summer we formed the Huntingdon County Rail Authority, its charge is accessing and revitalizing county rail assets. Through the Southern Alleghenies, funds were obtained and directed to determine the economic benefit of utilizing inactive rail. This step is critical for securing grant funding for rail rehabilitation. A transload facility is also being considered allowing the transport of goods by those not located directly on rail lines. There has also been investment from private stakeholders in this effort. We are working with Penndot to direct funding for improvements to Rt.453 for improved assess to interstate 99 as well as Rt.522 to the PA turnpike. Funding for improvements to Rt. 22 in the narrows between Mapleton and Mount Union also looks promising. I have continued to develop working relationships with our State and Federal elected officials to bring funding for work force training as well as incentives for employers to add jobs in the county. It’s not just about funding it’s also being pro-business and working to help business prosper instead of over-regulating and getting in the way.”
Barry Wright: “My experience is that simply throwing money at an endeavor is often times easy but in most cases produce few, if any results. A better mode of involvement is a combination of direct work processes in addition to, where appropriate, funding. I would be in favor of an initial series of conversations with area business leader, financial institution representatives, community leaders and perhaps even education folks. Upon invitation to a number of meetings these individuals could be asked to give names of companies and persons, if any exist, from outside Huntingdon county who may be searching for suitable business opportunities here. Should any such leads be found, I may be willing to engage in initial funding positions. Short answer is: I am not inclined to spend Huntingdon County citizen tax revenue or other funds without a real indication of possible success.”
Question #2. What revenue resources would you anticipate utilizing to facilitate funding to bring high-speed broadband to the entire County?
Nancy MacNamara: “Grants and public/private ventures should be our first funding endeavors. USDA’s 2019 Farm Bill (i.e., Reconnect program) will invest $600M through 2023 for rural broadband initiatives. 2019 Submission dates are upon us, but USDA expects to open future dates. Some restrictions would deny County-wide application, but we should assist local municipalities to prepare applications.
I would look to the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission who is identifying funding sources and preparing a support package through the comprehensive plan’s Regional Broadband Task Force. I am impressed with the Mill Creek group that formed the Rural Broadband Cooperative. As a County Planning Commissioner, I suggested early on we not try to reinvent the wheel for the broadband portion of the comprehensive plan – Mill Creek and JC Blair Hospital are both working toward the same goal, we should complement their efforts which could benefit us all monetarily.
Lastly, we will be paying $275K this year and $500 a month for two years to Zito Media Communications to install fiber for 911 system redundancy; could this fiber serve a dual purpose? Perhaps through broadband infrastructure development, we may correct the output of $107K per year for rental space on towers for our 911 equipment. Had our 911 system been planned with vision and not delayed so long, we could be making money by leasing space to other users if we owned the towers. The need for high-speed broadband coverage is important to families, economic growth, the farming industry, tourism, etc. We must search out and take advantage of all offerings that will not weigh on the county budget.”
Gary O’Korn: “This is one area that I would engage our County Planning Department and a full-time grant writer to assist. There is funding available from several sources not just for homeowners but for business and the farming community.
We must be proactive and persistent as the funding available will be competitively awarded. We must view this as a priority.
We can use a portion of the recently increased hotel excise tax to pay for expenses associated with these activities. Visitors to our area hope for high speed connectivity and they can help us pay for it.”
Mark Sather: “I had the opportunity to witness a tower raising completed by the Rural Broadband Cooperative of Mill Creek. This was completed by a group of concerned citizens who had seen a need and responded working in cooperation with each other to accomplish a goal. My congratulations to all involved in doing what was needed without Government funding, influence or interference! My sense of history was instantly aware of this groups accomplishments when I attended the Valley Rural Electric Cooperative Annual Meeting which first energized lines in service November 17, 1939
During my experience in working at AMP, Inc. as a part of the Global Business Interconnect Group, wireless products I had the opportunity to witness the beginning of Kinber,(Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research). Kinber’s goal to improve the quality of life and economic stability of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sought out funding from Federal USDA sources targeted toward under-served rural areas. Kinber using anchor institutions serves as a lead on initiatives and technology services that drive innovation.
In addition to Federal USDA sources of funding the debate continues in Harrisburg from the current Administration of imposing and utilizing revenue from Marcellus Shale that would exceed the impact fees of today. I believe from my past experience in providing last mile connectivity from a POP, (Point of Presence) the build out and business plan of the Rural Broadband Cooperative and others will be the envy of the big corporate common carriers of broadband today and they will want the business.”
Jeff Thomas: “We have formed the Southern Alleghenies Broadband Task Force. This was developed out of the 10 year comprehensive plan Alleghenies Ahead. We are working with the Governors team and providers of broad band to identify a solution. I was elected to a two year term in Jan. as co-chair of the task force. The task force through Southern Alleghenies has applied for funding to identify the unserved and underserved in our region. The funding source is the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Governors Team and ARC have identified this area as a priority. We are also looking at the Economic Development Administration for funding to identify vertical assets (tall buildings and other structures) in the region which could be used to deploy broadband. These two applications could bring us $200,000 to help identify areas that need served and present a plan for implementation. We have also permitted Fayette County and Westmoreland County to participate. Cost to each county for matches will be roughly $6200.00. There are also monies available to help with implementation in other grants once a solution for implementation is identified. A co-op was formed in Mill Creek that could be a blueprint for the region if it proves successful. We are leaps and bounds ahead of other regions in the state on this project. In today’s world, Broadband is vital whether it’s for business, education or medical. I will strive to help make this happen for our county and region.”
Scott Walls: “As Commissioners in a rural county, we know that there are many county residents that either have no internet access or have access that is not reliable enough to meet their needs. The need for reliable high-speed internet is expanding and is needed to facilitate agricultural operations, home medical monitoring and rural businesses as well as educational opportunities. Realizing the need we joined our five other partnering counties that make up the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Corporation and formed the South Central Regional Broadband Taskforce. This taskforce has been supported through their attendance by Senator Judy Ward and Representative Rich Irvin, the Governors office and HCBI. I have been appointed to the Funding & Research Committee for this taskforce. Currently the taskforce has been able to obtain $50,000.00 in federal funding that will be put towards identifying where and how much coverage exists and the best and most economical way to provide coverage to those areas in need. I am fortunate to represent the county on the Penn State Extension Council and have been able bring assets from Penn State to help our broadband efforts. Knowledge and resources provided thru PSU Extension are provided at no charge to the county. Other sources of revenue are being sought by working with officials at J.C. Blair Hospital to provide “rural home health monitoring” which will allow patients to remain in the comfort of home and still have their vital health information monitored by care givers.”
Barry Wright: “My information is that Governor Wolf has proposed a severance tax on gas drilling operations in Pa. He has stated that should this tax be enacted, it would be his plan to direct whatever funding needed to make high-speed broadband available to all Pa. citizens and businesses. Until the results of Governor Wolf's efforts are known, I would not be in favor of spending county resources on this issue. Short answer is: At this time I would not currently be inclined to spend for this.”
Question #3. The last property assessment in the County occurred in 1978. Would you be in favor of a county-wide reassessment to equitably balance property taxes throughout the County?
Nancy MacNamara: “I am not in favor of a county-wide reassessment as it is cost prohibitive at this time. It would be the right thing to do considering the many changes that have occurred in the last 50 years; e.g., the loss of downtown businesses and industry, lowering values, and the addition of I-99 in the north, incentivizing values. However, there are ways to more equitably levy property taxes using current resources.
As noted in question #1, we need to update our tax assessment base to ensure everyone is taxed based on their actual property. An accurate inventory must be completed using on-board staff, GIS (Geographic Information System) imagery, tax records and coordination with local municipalities. As this process advances, county tax assessments should become more accurate. The tax assessment information must be updated and kept current while we look at ways to bring the entire county to fair values. We also need to revamp our assessment appeal process by using an independent, professional source to consider appeals.
A county-wide reassessment would level the playing field and result in some paying less, some paying more. In the interest of all taxpayers it is the right thing to do. In the interim, since millage rates are based on what each municipality needs to operate, an honest effort to reduce the cost of county business could perhaps lower the county real estate millage for all.”
Gary O’Korn: “There are several issues associated with this topic. First is the fairness of property tax in general, then the cost of performing a reassessment, and next the effect it would have on our taxpayers.
The fairness of real estate tax is a big question and as Commissioner I have supported alternative ways to provide funding. Once you are on a fixed income, increases in property taxes can affect you greatly. Also, increases affect our largest industry, agriculture, at a time when they are feeling the pinch from every direction.
Second, the cost of a reassessment is estimated to be $3 million ($100 per property), a county government expense that we cannot currently afford. I will not support a reassessment until outside funding is available or a more consistent cost effective system is created by the state.
Third, the effect that a reassessment would have on our taxpayers could be catastrophic to some. I would not want to make things worse for any taxpayer at a time when we are attempting to improve the quality of life for all of our residents.”
Mark Sather: “I would not be in favor of a County wide reassessment for the following reasons. It has been estimated that the cost to complete a reassessment is $3million dollars. The results would produce net revenue neutrality, a zero gain in revenue. This occurs by law the year in which the reassessment is completed. What this means to our County Tax Payers is that the cost to complete a reassessment would increase the burden on our County Real Estate
Tax payer. In previous conversation with our County Tax Assessor the base year is 1978 as the last time each and every property in Huntingdon County was valued for assessment purposes. However, this doesn’t mean values have not changed. To maintain equitably balanced property taxes throughout the County parcel values have changed due to new housing and renovations, tax appeals, subdivision of parcels, and building demolitions.
During 2012 the previous board had reached the maximum allowable ceiling of 25 mils and were carrying over 27 mils that required court approval prior to passing on to County Tax payers. The Court approved and the Board of Commissioners sought a ratio change that dropped the rate from 27 to 13.5. The actions as by law resulted in net revenue neutrality, a zero gain in revenue for the year in which the ratio change occurred. The following year 2013 the maximum allowable increase of 10% was approved to set the mileage at 14.85.
The answer is to be found with real tax reform. The burdens need to be lifted from our real estate taxes.”
Jeff Thomas: “This is a question every commissioner cringes and struggles with. While a reassessment would definitely make properties taxes more equitable. The short answer is no. Here is my reason for the no answer. The county would need to come up with roughly 3 million dollars to do the reassessment which would come from the residents to perform the reassessment in the form of a tax increase. The only way I could consider a reassessment if there’s money in place to perform it and that it doesn’t come from solely the tax payer. Commissioners are faced with many priorities funding the county. This is not at the top of my priority list. I was appointed to the taxation and assessment committee of CCAP. Here I have lobbied for a tax shift. I don’t believe property taxes will ever be completely eliminated. I believe they could be substantially reduced with a tax shift, such as a 1% sales tax or earned income tax. A 1% percent sales tax alone would generate an estimated $1.5 million in revenue for the county which then would reduce the taxes that amount. I believe this would be a fairer system with the ability to pay.”
Scott Walls: “It’s not in the best interests of our tax payers to start a local reassessment
battle-no one wins. The cost of a county-wide reassessment is estimated to cost $2.5 to $3 million which would certainly be a cost that would be passed on to and must be made up by the tax payers. That’s the reason the previous Board of Commissioners instituted a “ratio change” instead of a reassessment. Currently the property tax is the only major funding source that the state allows counties to use for funding county government. The State Legislature needs to allow the counties to find some alternatives to relieve the burden of funding government that is not solely on the property owner. Everyone should bear the burden not just the property owner.”
Barry Wright: “Surely inequitable tax situations exist within Huntingdon County. Would not the people currently involved in property assessment be involved in a re-assessment? I believe errors were made in the past and will be made again. Currently an appeal process allows all Huntingdon County property owners with tax assessment issues to request a re-examination of their tax burden, looking to have their burden adjusted. Also; re-assessment is surely an expensive chore. Short answer is: I do not feel now is the time to re-assess.”