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Republican Commissioner Candidates Talk Taxes, Jobs, Environment and More

by on May 02, 2019 12:12 PM

Four candidates seeking Republican nominations for Centre County commissioner took part in the local League of Women Voters Candidates Night on Wednesday at the State College Municipal Building.

Incumbent Steve Dershem, former commissioner Chris Exarchos, Penn State student and Marion Township Supervisor Tanner Day, and Rush Township Supervisor Pat Romano Jr. answered voters' questions about taxes, jobs, the environment, guns, and decision-making.

Former commissioner Vicki Wedler and Halfmoon Township resident Joe Soloski, who are also seeking one of two Republican nominations, did not attend.

All three commissioners seats will be up for election in November. In the May 21 primary, voters will select two Democrats and two Republicans to be on the general election ballot. The Candidates Night forum does not include races that are unopposed, so the only two Democratic candidates in the primary, incumbents Mark Higgins and Michael Pipe, did not participate.

County Vehicle Registration Fee

Asked about why an additional $5 vehicle registration fee was approved by county commissioners in 2017 and what's being done with it, Day noted that he would like an answer to the question himself and said the issue was among the reasons he entered the race.

"I know a lot of people that were quite upset by this decision," Day said. "It’s a decision that’s obviously impacted a great many people in the county and I think a lot of people are looking for proper answers."

Dershem was the lone commissioner to vote against the fee and said residents already pay enough taxes for transportation, including "probably the highest taxed fuel for vehicles in the entire United States." 

He added that there is value in discussing how to address transportation infrastructure, but questioned the justification for the vehicle registration fee since Centre County does not own any roads or bridges. 

Exarchos also said he did not see a justification for the fee and that for families and business owners with more than one vehicle, it amounts to much more than $5.

"If you look at the farming community, they have probably a lot of trailers and vehicles and there are other businesses that have a lot of vehicles. It’s a serious impact for your tax," Exarchos said.

Romano said that as a township supervisor he expressed his opposition the fee when it was first proposed.

"There are people paying enough as it is, especially in some of the rural areas where we have older people who are on a fixed income and every little bit counts," Romano said.

Gun Restrictions

Candidates unanimously said they would not support Centre County following Pittsburgh's lead on recent legislation to ban some assault-style weapons, armor-piercing ammunition and high-capacity magazines.

Dershem simply said, "No. That’s all I have to say."

Exarchos said he does not believe the county has the statutory authority to impose such a ban and that he does not believe in imposing further restrictions on law-abiding citizens.

"Background checks are valid. Keeping guns away from people that shouldn’t have them by doing proper background checks … these mechanisms are on the books," he said. "Penalizing legal citizens by outright restrictions on gun ownership, I will not support that."

Romano agreed that background checks are appropriate, and that as a staunch supporter of gun rights he also opposes tighter restrictions on ownership. He also cited his opposition to recently proposed state legislation to enact a $10 firearm registration fee.

"There are so many things they’re trying to levy toward gun owners that I’m opposed to," Romano said. "I happen to own guns that were from my grandfather, my father. Especially in this county we have a lot of hunters and we have guns we just collect. When you start doing something … once again it’s another tax. It’s another measure of control."

Day said he too would not follow Pittsburgh's lead.

"I firmly believe gun ownership is a constitutional right granted to every single citizen of the United States. I believe not only the state doesn’t have the right but certainly the county doesn’t have the right to revoke that privilege from any citizen whatsoever," he said, adding that he does support efforts to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and individuals with a history of mental health issues.

State College Alcohol Tax

Some State College residents and leaders have long advocated for the authority to implement a "pour tax" on alcohol served at bars and restaurants to offset costs of police protection and other services. State law does not currently allow most counties or municipalities such taxation authority.

Exarchos said he needs to study the issue more closely and would first talk to tavern and restaurant owners before making a decision. He also said a liquor tax would probably have to be enacted countywide, not just for one municipality.

"I understand it has been imposed in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and part of me says if it’s good for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia it certainly can be good for State College," Exarchos said.

Romano said he is concerned that an alcohol tax or local sales tax would drive people to other places, harming businesses and costing jobs. He cited as an example Philadelphia's soda tax, which he said has caused people to go outside the city to buy beverages and in turn do the rest of their shopping elsewhere.

Similarly, Day said a major focus of county commissioners should be to keep jobs, businesses and revenue in the county.

"When you start levying unnecessary taxes on ridiculous subjects of any kind, you push business away," Day said. "You deter business, you don’t attract business."

Like Exarchos, Dershem said such a tax would need to be enacted at the county level, leading to issues of fairness in how it would be distributed.

"I think there would be a groundswell of resentment to the notion other folks were being taxed throughout the county and that money was being given to one specific municipality," Dershem said. "I don’t know how you do it. I’d be open to having a discussion if State College wants to do that. But I don’t know that you can one-and-done have a simple conversation to resolve this issue."

Climate Change

Climate scientists have reached nearly universal consensus that human activity is responsible for climate change over the past century, and Gov. Tom Wolf has called climate change the greatest long-term threat facing Pennsylvania. Candidates were asked if they agreed with Wolf's assessment for the state and the county.

Romano said that while climate change is happening, he does not believe humans have made a significant contribution to it.

"As far as the human impact of it, we’re awfully self-centered when we think that our impact can be as great as it is," Romano said, adding that the Earth has historically gone through cycles of warming and cooling.

Day also said that he believes "in the grand scheme of things," human activity does not make much impact on climate change, but also said he is "an environmentalist" and believes in taking care of the planet.

"I was a Boy Scout and I was always taught to care more about the environment and leave a better imprint than when you approached it," Day said. "I definitely agree we need to care more for the Earth because we as humans do leave a serious impact on our environment, litter, whatever. I think we need to care more but at the same time we don’t need to spend the mass amounts of money that we do."

Dershem said he is "a conservationist" who grew up in the same Boy Scout tradition as Day. He pointed to the county's work last year on an energy savings project that will reduce energy consumption and save money.

"Wonderfully, we’re on a path to save probably millions of dollars over the next several years by making a few small tweaks in our HVAC systems and our LED lighting structures," Dershem said. "There are ways we at a local level can impact in a very good way both conservation and conservation of the taxpayers’ dollars."

Exarchos said that while Earth's climate has changed over millions of years, he does believe humans are contributing to the current trend and efforts should be made to minimize that contribution.

"Having said that, I think technology needs to catch up on this issue without having massive destruction on our lifestyles," Exarchos said. "We also need to bring other nations along, like India and China, because they’re also contributors and we can’t do it alone as a nation."

Job Opportunities

Asked about specific actions to increase job opportunities in Centre County, Day said he has spoken with many small business owners and understands some of the challenges they face that keep them from growing.

"There’s a lot of small business owners that have approached me and told me they’re suffering," he said. "I’d like to sit down and meet with any business owner. Not just small businesses, any business owner in the area, to find out what’s harming them the most and try to work with them from a basic level."

Dershem noted that for the past nine consecutive years, during which time he has served on the Board of Commissioners, there has been no county property tax increase. Keeping property taxes low and working with municipalities on other incentives that work for companies and communities are key to drawing businesses to the region, he said.

"We can’t incentivize businesses enough to bring them here," Dershem said. "Quality of life and all the other issues we look at here in Centre County as assets, that’s what I think it’s going to take to continue to build and draw in new businesses."

Exarchos emphasized working with chambers including the CBICC and Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership, as well as Penn State, to bring in and keep businesses.

"These organizations have the know-how and the connections to recruit new business and industry," Exarchos said. "I know the county has a few business incubators of their own but I’m not sure they’re very productive. That money could have been better spent supporting these chambers."

He also said the county needs to be "smart about our regulations," and ensure that infrastructure and schools are strong.

Romano said it's important to demonstrate that businesses and industries are welcome in Centre County.

"We have a lot of resources here to offer," he said. "It’s a great place to start a business. We have the labor force. We have the greatest university in the country right here."

But, he said, the workforce needs to be engaged and trained for available jobs and investments in infrastructure, including rural broadband, are vital.

Decision-making

Candidates were asked about the most difficult decisions they've had to make and how those experiences will make the county better.

Dershem said the most difficult decisions often involve saying "no" to friends who have an idea he does not believe will work. He also said there have been times as commissioner where he's had to make tough decisions under difficult circumstances.

"Recently in Centre County there was rampant corruption and I had to make some tough decisions about standing up for our criminal justice system and for the citizens of our community," Dershem said. "I made those decisions and I would make them again."

Exarchos cited the decision in 2013, during his last term as commissioner, to transition Centre Crest nursing home from county ownership to a nonprofit board.

"Obviously there was a lot at stake with that move," he said. "As it turned out in hindsight it was a good decision because now the nursing home is doing very well. They’re building a new facility. The care has substantially increased. There are times when you have to take a deep breath and do something you know is right even though there may be people shouting at you telling you you’re going down the wrong path."

Romano said that one personally difficult decision was turning down a higher paying job which would have forced him to relocate and leave Centre County, an area that he loves. As an elected official, though, he said doing what you know is right makes decisions easier.

"What it comes down to is if you do your research and you’re doing the thing you know in your heart is right, it’s not really a difficult decision," he said. "It may not be one the public favors very much, but you’re there to make certain decisions."

For Day, many decisions made as a Marion Township supervisor have been difficult because he feels responsible for every resident.

"If there’s a decision I have to make that might hinder even one person, it will keep me awake at night," Day said. "I don’t like that, but that’s what comes with public office. Sometimes you have to learn you can’t help everybody. That’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in life because I’ve always enjoyed being a helping hand to every person in my community."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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