Candidates trade ideas, jabs in town hall

Six of the eight candidates looking lead the county for the next four years faced off last week at a town hall hosted by Action Together of Northeast Pennsylvania.

Two incumbent commissioners – MaryAnn Warren (D) and Alan Hall (R) – were joined at the table by the four Bootstrap candidates – Sue Rowe (D), Dana Rockwell (R), Sue Pipitone (R) and Judy Hershel (D) –  at the forum moderated by Ryan Zarkesh, vice president of Action Together NEPA. Incumbent commissioner Elizabeth Arnold (R) and candidate Thomas Follert (D) did not attend the event held at the community center in Great Bend.

The format provided for a two minute response from a candidate on a question read by Zarkesh, and then allowed the others a one minute response on the topic.

Topics of the night focused on economic development, substance abuse in county, hemp production, transportation and addressing the conditions of state roads.

Although Zarkesh asked participants to engage in respectful dialogue and to be respectful of each other, jabs began in the candidate introductions.

The first question went to Warren, asking what she views as a “big issue” facing the county and if there are any necessary changes.

Warren spoke on economic policies in place, as well as the revolving loan fund, the Trehab job training programs. She noted that changes are always necessary and added that she has “been working with everyone at the table.”’

Rowe offered a proposal for hemp production; and Rockwell said he found a “lack of focus on farming” in the county’s comprehensive plan that was adopted last year. He, too, advocated for industrial hemp production as a way to rehabilitate farmland. Pipitone also said farming is a priority, adding that she, too, saw hemp as an alternative.

Rowe, Pipitone and Hershel all said they would like to bring an economic development office back to the county. Since 2005, the county has contracted with the Progress Authority to handle day-to-day economic development activities on behalf of the county. The Progress Authority administers the revolving loan fund, conducts studies, as well as researches, writes and secures state and federal funds for county projects.

Hershel said she believed the number one issue in the county is jobs. She noted that although it’s a wealthy county, and unemployment is low, “so are wages,” she said.

She also spoke about the potential economic impact a hemp processing facility and a yogurt processing plant might have in the county.

Hershel also called for a larger county investment in tourism – stating that only about one percent of the county budget is focused in that area.

Hall said county priorities are constantly changing. He defended the work the Progress Authority has done for Susquehanna County in securing about $14 million in grants. He also said that, although headquartered in Bradford County, the Progress Authority is in Susquehanna County an average of two and a half days each week.

The agency will soon have a home base in the county, as they prepare to open an office in the county’s property on Chenango Street where the Conservation District offices were located.

Hall said working with the Progress Authority for economic development, as well as the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau for tourism has been cost effective and beneficial for the county.

The second question, directed to Rowe, asked about what could be done to encourage farming and the preservation of agricultural land in the county.

Rowe said the county could help organic farmers with marketing, as well as help bring in people interested in farming.

Rockwell said the “drastic decline in farming” in the county was sad, and reiterated his previous suggested to put the focus back on farming. He advocated that Act 13 funds received by the county should be used as “seed money” to start a farming facility.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) oversees the state’s Act 13 collection of fees from drillers and distribution of funds to the state, counties and municipalities. Of the 13 allowable uses for the impact fee funds, providing “seed money” for a farming facility is not listed. The law does allow for the funds to be used for environmental programs, conservation districts and agricultural preservation.

Pipitone returned to hemp as a potential crop for people who want to get back into farming. She also noted that two hemp companies are planning to locate in  neighboring Broome County, N.Y.

Hershel said that 65 percent of farmers were making under $10,000 annually, and pointed to hemp as a viable opportunity for those in farming.

Hall said that in regular meetings with the Susquehanna County Farm Bureau, older farmers have told him the younger generations have opted not to go into the business. He also noted federal milk pricing issues and offered that he has advocated for a fix for the pricing.

Hall also stated that there are potential pitfalls with hemp, and said another candidate is planning to host a forum on the issue in the near future.

Warren said that about 6,500 acres in the county have been placed into preserved farmland through leveraging county funds to get state monies. She said Penn State Extension and the Small Business Development Center provide help for people looking to develop marketing and business plans.

The third question was directed to Rockwell and focused on county infrastructure and capital projects.

Rockwell said road conditions in the county are dangerous and advocated that the county use its Act 13 money to repair the state’s roads.

While Pipitone agreed the roads needed to be fixed, she said that addressing flooding issues was her primary concern. “We can’t fix the roads without addressing the problem that caused (the damage),” she said.

Hershel agreed that the roads were “a mess” and suggested dredging the creeks – also using Act 13 funds. But she also pointed to the need for broadband service in the county.

Hall said he sits on the Northern Tier Transportation Committee and noted that the group holds public meetings several times each year. The roads, he said, are state roads and fall under the jurisdiction of the state representatives.

He also addressed flooding, and said that FEMA would not allow the county to be the conduit for local projects.

Warren said the Progress Authority is currently working on a broadband project in the county. She, too, noted that the roads were owned by the state, townships and the boroughs. The county does own 30 bridges, she said, and has used Act 13 funds to maintain those.

Rowe said that, as a Oakland Twp. supervisor, Act 13 funds were used to improve their roads. She said pressure needed to be placed on the state to repair the roads.

The next question posed asked how the candidates proposed to work with PennDOT to get the roads fixed, and if they would be in favor of implementing a tax on gas companies to help pay for road repairs. The question was directed to Pipitone.

Raising taxes is not the answer, Pipitone said. She said she would work with the industry to make sure they are repairing the roadways as they said they would. “It’s one thing to sit on a board, and another thing to take action and be a leader,” she said, referencing Hall’s comment about sitting on the Northern Tier transportation committee.

Hershel said the gas industry has done “marvelous things” in the county, but questioned whether they were paying their fair share. “We pay five and one-half days worth of our annual salary toward taxes. What they pay toward taxes is about one and one-quarter days.”

Hall offered up a look at PennDOT’s construction map for this year. He said people should be outraged to find out that $4.2 billion has been siphoned from the state from the gas tax to pay for another state agency.

He said gas companies are held to a higher construction standard than the state uses for road repairs.

Hall’s comments ran past the one minute response limit, and he was cut off as he attempted to finish his response.

After being asked to hold to the time constraints, Hall said, “It’s four people against two here. They’ve got books with answers already written down.”

“It’s called being prepared,” Pipitone responded.

“You’re not going to intimidate me like you do everyone else,” said Hershel.

In getting back to the question, Warren said gas companies bond the roads they use; and the ones they repair are fixed well.

Rowe said the improving the roadways would help keep the county pristine.

Rockwell said daily pressure should be put on PennDOT. He also said local PennDOT employees should not be demonized. He added that representatives and congress should also be pressured about the road conditions.

A question on county transportation options was directed to Hershel first.

She said she would like to see an increase of transportation options in the county. Hershel noted that Trehab – the agency that administers transportation for the county under the name SWCT – has had a positive impact. But, she said, people still have difficulty getting to appointments and jobs. She said she would work to find a solution.

Hall said SWCT is expanding services to Saturdays. He said Harrisburg was trying to take away local control of transportation and broker it out. “We’re fighting that,” he said. He also noted Secretary of Transportation Leslie Richards would be touring the area on May 3.

Warren said she would like to see transportation service days to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Broome County, N.Y., areas increased, and advocated for an increase in a small vehicle fleet to help decrease passenger time on the buses.

Rowe said she felt the county could do better with its transportation service and Rockwell suggested an investment in natural gas powered vehicles for the fleet.

Pipitone said transportation is “always an issue in a rural community.”

The remaining topics from the Town Hall will be covered next week’s edition of the Independent. Topics to be covered include voter registration; whether the commissioner position is a full- or part-time job; and biggest issues facing the county in the next two years.

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