BELLEFONTE — “What a year the last year has been. Everything was going well until the pandemic hit,” said Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins during the annual State of County event held by the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County.
The impact of the coronavirus took center stage at this year’s virtual event on Sept. 14. Higgins said that before the pandemic, the county budget had a surplus. He added that Centre County has fared better than many other area counties during the pandemic. “Due to the resilience and positive attitude of Centre County citizens and businesses, we have not been as badly affected as some other counties,” he said.
Before Higgins spoke, board Chairman Michael Pipe went through a timeline of the county’s response to the difficulties presented by the virus, which came after the re-elected in 2019.
“Each of us had thoughts and expectation on what the next four years would hold for us. We campaigned on certain promises and platforms and positions, and what we have really needed to do over the last several months was put aside some of the things we wanted to focus on and make sure that our top priority was ensuring that county government was running smoothly and operating during a global pandemic,” said Pipe. He added that the whole team of elected officials and staff at the county worked to make sure that “there was never any delay in services as they pivoted to a virtual county government service platform.”
At the same time, Pipe acknowledged the sacrifice many in the county government made, having to provide in-person services as essential workers.
“Many of our offices were unable to do virtual work and so we have taken extraordinary steps to make sure that those people are protected,” said Pipe. “If we think back to where this pandemic began back in March, the county government moved very quickly to having employees work off-site in a safe way. Our IT team and our contracted IT folks moved very quickly to get additional server laptop log-ins and many things were needed to make sure that services provided by the county government would go smoothly.”
Pipe said the county moved quickly to declare a “state of county emergency” that enabled it to receive state and federal funds.
Pipe also highlighted work that was done on the courthouse and the solar array at the Centre County Correctional Facility.
“That will offset costs and help us to produce green energy and will be something that will actually generate revenue for us,” said Pipe.
The delay in the primary election from April to June allowed the county to hold a safe vote, according to Pipe.
A challenge that Pipe highlighted was the fact that the correctional facility saw a number of positive COVID-19 cases early on, but he credited the staff at the facility for containing the cases and said, “In the last several months, we have had no cases of COVID-19 in the correctional facility.”
Pipe also highlighted the $14.7 million that the county received in CARES Act Funds to help in a multitude of ways, including providing grants to businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions, health-care facilities and municipalities affected by the pandemic.
Looking at the future, he said the county is working with Penn State and the Department of Health in examining the additional cases of COVID-19 that have recently been seen in Centre County. He also said officials are working hard to prepare for the upcoming election and preparing a budget for the county during this uncertain time.
Higgins went on to highlight several economic development initiatives that occurred over the past year.
“By the conclusion of my presentation, I hope you understand the importance of focusing on the future and importance of diversifying our local economy. We need to take control of our destiny. It is wonderful to have a world-class university headquartered in Centre County, but if that university, and that economic activity it creates, continues to constitute over 90 percent of our local economy, we will live and die economically by the action of that single entity,” said Higgins.
Higgins then announced a new $400,000 COVID-19 working capital loan program that was developed by SEDA-COG. He said the minimum loan size is $10,000, but could be much larger, with an option with deferred payments for six months and low interest. The loans can be used for such things as capital, equipment and real estate.
Higgins then highlighted the efforts of the commissioners to provide broadband access to rural parts of the county by leasing space on three 911 towers to a private broadband company, Centre WISP.
“They are serving more than 700 customers in Centre County, which is a very impressive number in a little over a year in an area that up to this point had virtually no high-speed internet,” said Higgins. He said the company has created jobs in Centre County and is expanding into nearby counties.
“These high-speed rural broadband services will help keep current businesses and residents in eastern Centre County and also make the area more attractive to new businesses and remote workers who currently live elsewhere,” said Higgins.
Local food hub Appalachian Foodworks has worked to provide local meat and other products to area restaurants, helping diversify the economy, he said.
“I would like to thank our local bars and restaurants that work directly with local farmers and agriculture processors that help preserve our local farms and create new agricultural processing jobs in Centre County,” said Higgins. He said he continues to work with state officials to help bring a dairy processing facility to the area.
“I’ve had a couple nibbles from a dairy processing facility over the past year, but nothing firm yet,” said Higgins.
Like Pipe, Higgins touted the Small Business Block Grant that was part of the CARES funding received by the county. He said some other counties have not established such a program yet, and some others have dedicated $1 million to $2 million for small business grants. Centre County’s program is up and running, dedicating $6 million for small business grants, which was 47 percent of the federal funding the county received from the CARES Act.
After the window for the grant was closed on Sept. 11, the county received a total of 546 grant application and 329 applications that were started and not finished, he said. The first county check run will be in early October for businesses that did not receive federal or state grants and the second check run for businesses that did receive federal or state aid will come in late October.
“We are very much looking forward to discussing all of the amounts of grant funding and getting hundreds of checks out in October,” said Higgins.
“One of the things that I really want to hit on, is one of the things that Centre County really does best, at its core, is human services,” said Commissioner Steven Dershem. “We have got an incredible group of people working for you, with us to make sure that services are provided to some of the most vulnerable folks in our community.”
Isolation due to COVID-19 has made things more difficult for those in need of and those providing services.
“We often operate in a world where mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, domestic abuse, all of those things, kind of have watchdogs over them,” said Dershem, “and in a time of isolation, those watchdogs, such as mandated reporters in schools, might not be seeing people in need on a regular basis, leaving some people not getting help.”
“This time is as critical as ever, that if you have neighbors, you got friends, you got family, keep an eye on them, particularly our older senior folks who may be at home and may need your help…,” he added. “Everybody needs to work together so we as a community, we as a government, we as Centre County do everything we can to help out the folks who are struggling during these unprecedented times.”
The county has proclaimed September as Domestic Violence Awareness, Recovery and Overdose Awareness and Suicide Awareness Month, he said.
“This reminds us, as Centre County officials, what the true duties are to this community,” said Dershem. “For instance, in Centre County right now, we have 11 COVID deaths. Well, we have 12 overdose deaths so far this year too. And that comes from nine last year.”
Dershem lamented the loss of the many things that mark the seasons in Centre County, such as Memorial Day parades and the Grange Fair
“So many things we take for granted …,” he said.
“So go out and support your local restaurants. Go out and support your businesses. Let’s make sure that we weather this storm as effectively and aggressively as we can and make sure that the fabric of our community stays solid.”
Dershem said looking ahead at county government, due to the impact of COVID at the state level, Pennsylvania “will probably be a little lean on cash and it’s going to be tough to fund a lot of the programs that we traditionally enjoy, but we will work through all those challenges and make sure that we provide the necessary services for the citizens of Centre County.”