The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 4, 2012

George Hancock | Countywide gov’t answer for Paint Twp., others

George Hancock

— Once again, our local headlines illustrate the truth in the quaint maxim that “all politics is local.”

This phrase is generally attributed to the late Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill. What O’Neill actually said was, “Let me tell you something I learned years ago, all politics is local.”

Local politics, revenue shortfalls, destructive water runoff, development, neighborhood blight, neglected roads and decaying infrastructures really irk the voting populace. Many voters mute those raucous presidential campaign commercials.

I ponder whether spending billions on those national campaigns is truly worth the expensive effort. Our political pretenders would obtain better results by cutting the prolific roadside grass. Or perhaps repairing our myriad Pennsylvania potholes and crumbling roads.

Time magazine recently reported that 2012 federal election spending will top the $5.8 billion mark. That’s $5.8 billion wasted on negative campaign ads, while local governments wring their collective hands. The to-do lists are huge. Revenues necessary to pay these bills are sparse.

Paint Township’s current persistent plight is a prime example. Two main factors contributed to their economic malaise. The first is the cost overruns on the addition to the municipal building. The second is the costly township sewer project.

Paint Township supervisors detailed the unbudgeted spending items that also contributed to this situation.

These expenditures were related to the police department expansion. The end result was a projected six-figure budget shortfall. The bills are now due. But, where do we find the revenue?

As a dedicated athlete, I have a “unique” running relationship with Paint Township. During the 1980s, I ran with a group of long-distance runners. Every Sunday morning, we gathered at Windber Area High School. Our training runs averaged 15 to 20 miles. We ran across Paint Township. We toured Ridge Road and Louella, Morningland, Basin, Verla, Dark Shade and Camp drives. We trekked across quiet rural roads. Farms dotted the landscape.

Today, some 25 years later, those same roads feature numerous homes. Paint Township became a nice place to build one’s family home. Housing development steadily grew across this region.

The township is located in an excellent school district.

The tax rates are low. Recent news reports revealed Paint’s 8-mill real estate tax is the lowest in the Cambria-Somerset County region. The last tax increase was in 2004.

However, the proposed 2013 budget would create a hefty tax increase. An outside certified-accounting firm will study, analyze and prepare the township’s budget. A 6-mill tax increase is projected by township officials. Four mills are dedicated to the debt service issue, while the remaining 2 mills aid the recovery effort. That amounts to an approximate 75 percent property-tax increase.

Short-term initiatives were undertaken by Paint Township officials. The supervisors furloughed the road crew. The office secretary, a police department secretary, the emergency-management coordinator and the police chief all were laid off.

These days, I ponder several questions while running through Paint Township. The seasonal clock is ticking. Autumn is here with its beautiful-yet-fluctuating weather patterns. The leaves are falling.

Was it wise letting the road crew go? What happens if another early snowstorm visits in late October? Who will plow Paint Township’s roads?

There is good news in this murky situation. Patrols by the Paint Township Police Department will continue. Chief Rick Skiles, despite being laid off, will oversee the department.

Paint residents received other good news. The supervisors will now hold township meetings at 6:30 p.m.

Is there a sensible solution to this municipal mess? Paint is not alone. Boroughs and townships across the region face numerous uncertainties. Our aged infrastructure needs immediate improvements. Budgets are strained. Revenues are nearly nonexistent. 

There is one solution. Why not try countywide government? One county commissioner represents the North, the second commissioner, the middle, and the third, the southern tier.

Road, police, fire and ambulance services become county-run entities. Every community in the county receives 24/7 coverage.    

Many worry about losing their local identities. This is a groundless fear.

I will continue running through the Elton, Scalp Level, Richland and Paint Township communities.

George Hancock of Scalp Level is an occasional contributor to the editorial page.

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