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Election 2019: Centre County Commissioners

by on October 31, 2019 5:00 AM

All three Centre County Board of Commissioners positions will be up for election on Tuesday, Nov. 5, with three incumbents seeking reelection and another looking to make a return to the board.

Democratic incumbents Mark Higgins and Michael Pipe, who currently serves as board chair, will be on the ballot with Republican incumbent Steve Dershem. They're joined by Republican challenger Chris Exarchos, who previously served two terms as commissioner from 2004-2007 and 2012-2015.

Dershem is seeking his fifth consecutive term as commissioner, while Pipe is running for his third and Higgins his second.

While all three seats will be elected, voters will select two on their ballots.

All four candidates answered voter questions at the recent League of Women Voters of Centre County Candidates Night. Here's a look at what they had to say, followed by their closing statements.

What can and should Centre County do to mitigate climate change?

Both Dershem and Exarchos said county government is limited in what it can do to address climate change. Dershem said what it can do best is be "smart about energy usage," saying the county is looking with other local government entities at a joint alternative energy purchase agreement and citing the energy savings plan approved by commissioners to update lighting and HVAC systems for efficiency.

"I think we’ve done a very effective job of changing out a lot of our lighting systems to LED and updating our HVAC systems, which not only does produce less waste, if you will, but on the big side it saves the taxpayers a lot of money," Dershem said.

Exarchos said those efforts can help and the county may also look at updating its fleet for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"The county, they can do small bits here and there but they’re not a major player in this area," Exarchos said.

Higgins and Pipe both said elected leaders need to believe climate change is happening and that everyone has a responsibility for addressing it.

"If individuals running for office do not take it to heart and do not believe they can have an impact, I think that’s a serious detriment to their ability to serve and create a future and a vision for the people they're representing," Pipe said

Both pointed to the energy savings program to update outdated building infrastructure, which Higgins said will save a third of the county's energy usage. Higgins also mentioned the solar panel array currently being installed to power the Centre County Correctional Facility, which is expected to save $4 million over 40 years. With the potential joint power purchase, the county "could hopefully in a year or two be buying 100 percent of our power or generating it entirely green."

Pipe added that in addition to those efforts the county is supporting GreenBuild affordable housing, which will design homes to have energy bills "in the single digits."

"We’re excited to use some of our affordable housing fund money for that project here in the borough of State College and look forward to doing more innovative ways to save energy in Centre County," Pipe said.

Is Centre County investing in economic development at an appropriate level and if not what changes would you recommend and why?

Exarchos said economic development is "crucial" for creating good jobs but that organizations such as CBICC are better-suited to advancing it than county government.

"The best thing the county can do is partner with the Chamber of Business and Industry rather than waste taxpayer money to sprinkle a few incubators here and there," he said. "Basically what they’re doing is providing free rental for a few individuals at taxpayers’ expense."

Higgins countered that of the 12 business incubators now in the county, three are owned by Centre County and that the cost to run them "is quite small." He said though relatively new they have so far created eight jobs. Higgins added that unemployment is at a record low, that State College recently became just the sixth "entrepreneurial city" in Pennsylvania, and that county funding to CBICC has quadrupled and to other chambers doubled.

"I think we’ve worked very hard and been very effective in this area over the last four years," he said.

Pipe said the key to economic development is creating "capital and community." 

"When we’re doing projects for economic development, we’re often looking at how can we support local businesses," he said. "We’ve been really excited to be able to partner with the CBICC through the Centre County Economic Development Partnership and to be able to create over 200 jobs over the next five years. It’s by working with these local businesses that started in folks’ basements, garages."

Dershem said there is "a combination of things" the county can do, including support for the chambers as well as evaluating how to give businesses the tools they need to succeed, whether it's starting new, growing or staying in the county. He also said Penn State offers a wealth of resources the county can play a role in coordinating.

"How can we leverage all those resources to make sure the jobs and the folks that we have here and the quality of life we enjoy in Centre County continue to flourish? I’m committed to that," Dershem said.

Do you support accepting inmates at the Centre County Correctional Facility from other counties? Would you support programs that prepare inmates for a productive life after release from jail? Would you support a GED program offered to inmates?

Higgins said that the number of inmates at the Centre County Correctional Facility has decreased by 40 percent since 2012, compared to a statewide average of 6 percent. That, he said, has created the challenge of keeping all of the facility's corrections officers employed, and so the county has taken inmates from other counties.

"That has been very successful," Higgins said. "We have brought in quite a bit of revenue, but the key reason for doing that was not so much the revenue but to avoid layoffs at the facility."

The facility also offers a wide range of non-mandated programs for inmates, he said. Pipe added that the jail does offer a GED program and he discussed attending a small graduation ceremony for one inmate, who said it was the first time he had a group of people who believed in him and recognized his achievement. 

"In terms of the vision and mindset at our correctional facility, and I give a lot of credit to our staff, it’s about improving opportunities and chances for success for individuals after they leave the facility," Pipe said. "You go to other counties, just a few counties away, and it’s literally three hots and a cot. You lock them up and throw away the key. We are committed and determined to improving the lives of individuals who are a part of our criminal justice system."

Dershem said the jail offers career development opportunities, but also explained most inmates are there for only 60 to 90 days. That period also offers a chance to "make a difference in their lives through drug and alcohol treatment, through mental health treatment, kind of getting them on a better path.

"I’m very proud of the programs that our jail has implemented in those regards. As far as anything else we can do, I think that’s one of the challenges we take on every day, looking for new opportunities to expand our programs for all the folks that are returning citizens."

Exarchos said the courts and district attorney mostly determine how many inmates are at the correctional facility and that "we have good judges that look at alternative sentencing." He added that accepting inmates from other counties is "neighborly" and not about revenue.  But, he said, more resources need to be devoted to mental health services.

"I think what we need to do is spend more resources on mental health and try to straighten some of these people out before they get out of jail and make sure they can become productive members of our community," he said.

The 2019 county budget shows approximately 34 percent of county spending in the area of human services. How can county finances keep pace with the growing need for such services?

"Partnership and coordination" have been the focus of county human services, Pipe said. As the departments spend wisely while providing quality services, leftover funds can be reinvested into new programs, such as the new 24-hour walk-in mental health crisis assessment center, which is expected to open this fall and will be the first of its kind in the county. Anyone will be able to come in, be assessed and be linked to services, he added.

"Those kind of things are very rare in Pennsylvania," Pipe said. "But the fact that we have that kind of coordination and collaboration has been really terrific."

How to best deliver the services and do so "a little smarter, faster and better is always challenge," Dershem said. In recent years, through programs like human services block grants the county has had more flexibility to move funding from one area to another, and that flexibility has enabled focusing on areas of need.

Dershem added that the success of the county's services has been because of results-oriented administrators and staff who work together.

"It doesn’t matter which human service department you’re in, you’re going to get good service and they’re going to work with their companion," he said. "There’s a lot we can keep doing and we’re going to do it."

Exarchos called human services "the primary function of county government." The key, he said, is in setting priorities and making hard choices with limited resources.

"I would make the choice [of] better delivery of human services, particularly in mental health, versus solar panels at the jail, versus a $6 million bike path some place," he said. "I think this is what good management does. You understand your priorities and you put your resources where they need to be.

The jail solar panels come from capital funds that can't be used for human services, Higgins said. But the anticipated $4 million in operational savings from the panels over time can be reinvested in services such as for mental health. 

"Our human services groups work very well together. They’re very collaborative and I also want to mention the dozens of local nonprofits that we work with that do wonderful jobs," Higgins said. "We’re very happy to partner with them. I just think a fresh, innovative approach is needed and I think the current board is moving in that direction."

The Centre Region has increasingly become a tourist destination for people outside Centre County. While visitors bring vibrancy to our county and increased revenue for our retail establishments, the cost of keeping visitors safe falls to resident taxpayers. How would you raise revenue to support these communities?

All four candidates generally agreed that the county is limited in what it can do to raise revenue for municipalities.

Dershem said the recently increased local hotel tax does go toward promoting tourism in the region, but that the county is restricted from using it for much else. There may be an opportunity to partner on safety and security issues, he added.

Exarchos said he would like to see more flexibility in how counties can use the hotel tax.

"We need some legislative leeway here to have some of perhaps the tax dollars that come in through the visitors center maybe put toward offsetting municipal costs," he said.

Higgins agreed that the county doesn't have a large role in those issues but that he believes the increased tourism ultimately will help raise the quality of life and increase the tax base for municipalities.

"Also provided the new jobs that are generated by the additional tourists, if those employees live in a municipality, in many cases they are paying an earned income tax," Higgins said. "Additionally as new hotels and new tourism-related structures are built, that would increase property taxes for the local municipalities, but I understand that oftentimes that isn’t enough. Unfortunately the solution to that lies with our state legislators."

Pipe concurred that tourism can help boost municipal revenue, adding that the county has and will continue to collaborate with municipalities on safety issues.

"Our emergency services coordinator works very closely with the Centre Region and other emergency management coordinators across the county in every municipality to constantly look at innovative ways to create better emergency procedures," he said. "If there’s a local event that's going to occur they can make sure Pennsylvania State Police and other police forces are kept in the loop. So there’s a lot of good communication that goes into these events before they occur. As we bring more events in we’re going to improve our collaboration."

Is supporting active and alternative transportation an important priority for you? What would you do to support and promote public transportation and commuting by bicycle and walking in Centre County?

Exarchos said he supports it personally but it would not be a priority for him as commissioner. 

"As a [College Township councilman] I certainly supported a number of bike path projects in the Centre Region," he said. "I certainly supported CATA and mass transit. I think we need to keep public transportation as affordable as we can and as easy and convenient to use as we possibly can...To answer your question, yes I support it but it’s not a primary function of county."

Higgins said that cities throughout the country are finding that the more usable bike paths they have, the more people will use them, which reduces pollution and improves health. Bike and pedestrian paths, Higgins said, benefit tourism and nearby property values and even if they are "more than a couple of dollars," there are "huge benefits to investments in infrastructure."

Municipalities have indicated that alternative forms of transportation are important to their communities, Pipe said. Through the Centre County Municipal Planning Organization, Centre Region staff have been empowered to pursue state grants for these types of projects.

"It’s a mistake for us not to go after every pot of money we can go after to improve our community," Pipe said. "When we start to say 'we shouldn’t go after this, we shouldn’t go after this,' it really closes us off... I would encourage us in any way, shape or form that we can improve our community to look at it."

Dershem said money that funds bike paths often can be used for roads, so it's a matter of balancing interests. The county's topography and the relative lack of railroad beds that could be used for rails to trails also make bike paths an expensive proposition, he said.

"If there are opportunities where that makes fiscal sense and it applies more largely and there are grants available for such things, we should apply for them," Dershem said. "As a general rule I would be a little hesitant for the county to get too deep in the conversations that are really more municipal structure than countywide structure."

Closing Statements

Michael Pipe

The four priorities I want to communicate to the voters of Centre County that we’re working for are creating a safer Centre County, building an economy that works for everyone, restoring trust in county government and increasing services without raising property taxes.

We’ve been battling the opioid epidemic, reforming the criminal justice system, supporting our first responders, investing in job creation, supporting broadband expansion, affordable housing. We’ve safeguarded elections, protected the environment. We’re rebuilding our critical infrastructure. We’ve enhanced services for seniors. We’re honoring and caring for our veterans. And this is all without raising county property taxes.

It would be an honor to serve you for another four years. This is my first time running for reelection as a father, so it’s an important election for me. You start thinking more about the future. You start thinking about how we are so closely tied as a community and what is the community I’d like to raise my daughter in with my wife. It’s a special time for Centre County. I would be honored to earn one of your two votes on Nov. 5.

Mark Higgins

I agree with Commissioner Pipe that there are a number of different initiatives that the current board has undertaken and that we have some great plans for the future, because the current board is listening to the concerns of citizens.

Working with county staff, other elected officials and their staff, nonprofits and the wonderful citizens of Centre County as a team, the current board has kept the lights on. Now we’ve changed them to LEDs and it has drastically reduced our costs. We’re taking those cost savings from our capital dollars and putting in the solar array which is going to save as much as $170,000 a year and we will invest those operating budget savings in services, such as increased mental health services at the jail and the new 24-7 mental health crisis location near the mall that will be opening soon.

We’ve also implemented many new initiatives: rural broadband, natural gas, finding a new bank for Snow Shoe, installing the new Active Adult Center at the mall, assisting local businesses in creating jobs, and all of this without increasing county property taxes. I love my job. I would ask the voters of Centre County to keep the current board. 

Beginning in 2016 all of our elected officials, Republican and Democrat, have complimented the current board for our effectiveness and professionalism in moving Centre County forward.

Chris Exarchos

I’m committed to public service. I have a long history of public service. I served a number of terms on College Township Council, various boards and authorities. And I had the honor and the pleasure of serving as your county commissioner two previous terms. I’m not going to go through a lengthy list of accomplishments and achievements. You can see those all online.

But I am concerned about the future. I’ve made my livelihood here. My kids live here. My grandkids live here. I’ll make sure Centre County is a good place moving into the future. I think it’s important that county commissioners, the chief executive officers, set the right priorities and the right tones for the county.

Suicide rates are up. We have an opiate crisis. We have people in jail because of mental health issues. We should be spending our money and resources on these types of issues. Not that solar panels aren’t important. They’re important, but they should not be a priority for the county.

Steve Dershem

One of the challenges that county government sees, as many local governments and I think even the school districts do… dollars are very precious. It’s very difficult to assign an importance to folks that are making choices in their lives, whether they’re going to be paying property taxes, whether they’re going to be buying medication, whether they’re going to be paying rent or whatever it is. We as county commissioners have to be mindful that every dollar we spend comes from pretty much the folks out in the community or folks in our state or federal government.

We have to be very mindful of how we spend those dollars. I will tell you I have committed myself and my life and my family to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and our personal dollars.

One of the big challenges we have as a community moving forward is to keep property taxes low, keep spending smart and still provide the quality services that we are required to and committed to for our constituents. 

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