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February 1, 2013

Judges hear views on precinct consolidation

EBENSBURG — The fear of disenfranchising voters, especially senior citizens, was voiced by nearly a dozen people testifying on why they object to plans by the Cambria County commissioners to reduce the number of voting precincts to 127 from 165.

Many of those testifying before the three-judge panel Friday were seniors who expressed concern that consolidation of 76 districts into 38 would mean that older people, even some who drive, just won’t bother to vote.

“My concern is not so much about the (additional) mileage,” but about dangerous highway access and difficulty getting into the polling place, said Frank Fantuzzo of East Taylor Township.

A plan unveiled last month by the county commissioners would combine East Taylor’s No. 2 and No. 3 precincts, a move that Fantuzzo maintained would keep voters away from the polls.

That theme was carried out by residents of other areas stretching from Susquehanna Township to the north and south to the Elton area just outside Windber.

But the distance that must be traveled to vote has been raised in court appeals on precinct consolidation and it largely is not an issue, Judge David Tulowitzki said.

“If you’re expected to drive an extra 10 to 15 minutes, it’s not to be part of our decision,” Tulowitzki said.

If approved by Tulowitzki and Judges Linda Fleming and Patrick Kiniry, the precinct consolidation proposal in its current form would save the county an estimated $39,988 for each election, or $79,976 annually, county solicitor Thomas Leiden said.

President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder told the judges that the idea of precinct consolidation was an initiative of former county elections director Fred Smith, who retired last year.

The consolidations in some cases will combine precincts that are in close proximity to one another and others where voter registration numbers are extremely low, Lengenfelder said.

The declining population of Cambria County is a big reason for the need to consolidate precincts, Commissioner Mark Wissinger testified.

He cited a current county population of 144,000 compared with 163,000 in the 1990s. Projections are that the trend won’t be reversed anytime soon, Wissinger said.

Heath Long, chairman of the Cambria County Democratic Committee, said forcing people to travel longer distances to vote could cause problems, especially for the elderly and when snow and ice present a danger.

John Fabo of South Fork said he favors plans to consolidate the two precincts in his town because the polling places are about 400 feet apart.

County Controller and West Taylor Township resident Ed Cernic urged the judges to look at each of the proposed changes in light of the testimony presented.

“I believe the court has heard many compelling reasons to change some of the districts and not to change some of the districts,” Cernic said. “I believe we should make it more convenient for people to vote than ever before, rather than less convenient.”

Long concurred, noting that the objections raised were not to all of the proposed consolidations and that many may be acceptable.

“I think 90 percent of them, everyone agreed they make sense as long as (the precincts) can handle the people,” Long told the judicial panel.

If approved, 15 of the new districts would have more than 1,000 registered voters. The highest number of voters would be 1,429 by consolidating Westmont No. 4 and No. 6.  

Under the plan, the number of Johns-town’s precincts would decline to 18 from 28 and Westmont’s would drop to three from six.

Nine municipalities that now have two voting precincts each would end up with only one through consolidation. They are the boroughs of Cresson, East Conemaugh, Ferndale, Gallitzin and South Fork and the townships of Barr, Gallitzin, Susquehanna and West Carroll.  

Tulowitzki said the judges will consider all of the proposed consolidations. He gave no indication when a decision would be made.

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