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March 28, 2013

All about the economy: County zeroes in on single priority

JOHNSTOWN — Over and over, the Cambria County commissioners showed one particular slide during a presentation to Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce members and other local residents Thursday morning.

It simply explained how the board’s top priority for this year is economic development.

They even laughed a little at the repetition. “Did I mention what our No. 1 priority is going to be for this year?” asked Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder when showing the image yet again to an audience inside the Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown. His colleague, Thomas Chernisky, joked, “Economic development; do we got that down?”

The straightforward message was emphasized during their presentation at the chamber’s “State of the County & City” event.

“Our focus remains on economic development,” Lengenfelder said.

The overall goal of the gathering was to inform the business community about developments within Cambria County and the city of Johnstown, which was represented by City Manager Kristen Denne.

“I think it was terrific. ... There was an awful lot of good information that was imparted to the business community,” said Robert Layo, the chamber’s president.

The three commissioners emphasized seven areas: Energy, technology, finance, commerce, people, security and communications. They elaborated upon developing a foreign trade zone at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, supporting the local wind industry, using social media, improving security measures at the courthouse and several other subjects.

Commissioners hope taking those steps can help businesses create good-paying jobs and therefore improve the lives of residents.

“When you’re in business, it’s all about people. That’s what we’re all about,” said Commissioner Mark Wissinger.

Denne followed their presentation with a discussion about the city’s finances and services.

She complimented the Johns-

town Police Department for protecting the city with 38 officers, a total down from the 50-plus who used to serve.

“If there’s one area of the city that I would absolutely say that needs to be increased, it is the police department. These guys are doing a lot with a lot less resources, and they’re not complaining about it,” she said.

Denne also discussed the burden of legacy costs.

“This is what every city in the state of Pennsylvania is struggling with,” Denne said.

“Johnstown is not alone in this.”

Most notably, Johnstown’s pension program is only 49 percent funded. It would take an additional $20 million to make it actuarially sound for 30 years, according to the city manager. Currently, 252 retirees are receiving pension payments, while only 139 active employees are paying into the fund. Annual payments to pensioners exceed $3 million.

“The pension is what is absolutely stifling,” Denne said.

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