The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 24, 2013

As region’s population dwindles, leaders wonder if it’s time to ... come together

JOHNSTOWN — Consolidation, ironically, is often one of the most divisive concepts in the region.

Municipalities, churches, voting precincts, schools and police departments have all considered mergers within the past few years. The processes have almost always been contentious. Some have reached fruition. Others have resulted in lawsuits.

With residents frequently reluctant to join together, the region remains politically splintered. There is a combined population of approximately 270,000 people in Bedford, Cambria and Somerset counties, divided among 151 municipalities, meaning the average population is roughly 1,800. Proponents feel the historically rooted political divides create small-town atmospheres where people know their local elected officials, police officers and firefighters by their first names. Some opponents simply consider the municipalities to be nothing more than parochial fiefdoms.

The strongly held opinions on both sides make the subject challenging for politicians, school officials and other community leaders to broach.

“Even the word ‘consolidation’ kind of makes people bristle,” said Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce President Robert Layo.

Many of the lines currently separating communities were drawn in the 1800s, leading some to believe a more modern approach is needed.

“You have to change artificial boundaries that were created 150 years ago,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.

Some mergers have occurred.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown combined five Cambria City parishes into one place of worship, Resurrection Roman Catholic Parish, guided by Rev. Alan E. Thomas, in 2009. The former St. Stephen is serving as the church itself with St. Rochus now part of the parish complex. The former Immaculate Conception, SS. Casimir & Emerich, and St. Columba have been taken over by 1901 Church Inc., a nonprofit organization.

The union was met with some resistance at the time, since many of the faithful felt a deep personal connection to the ethnic heritages of their respective houses of worship.

But, now, not even four full years later, the diocese is pleased with the outcome.

“I think the biggest success is the reaction of the people,” said diocese spokesperson Tony DeGol. “It was a difficult time for many of the faithful in Cambria City. I think a lot of them looked at the merger with some concern. … The pastor, I think, is doing a wonderful job in trying to unite everyone. I think he deserves a lot of credit for bringing everyone together.”

Other attempts at consolidation or creating shared services agreements have not gone nearly as smoothly.

In 2010, Ligonier Valley School District decided to merge two high schools within its district. The board closed Laurel Valley Middle and High School, relocating its 300 students to Ligonier Valley High School. The issue was not resolved until a grassroots organization called Save Our Rams Education, a.k.a. SORE, lost its court case to keep Laurel Valley open.

One year later, Portage Township Chairman Kenneth Trimbath proposed a plan to bring Portage Borough police patrols into his municipality. Borough residents were so vehemently opposed that no township supervisor seconded the motion and Trimbath immediately resigned.

Cambria County’s most recent attempt at consolidation is occurring on the countywide level. Earlier this year, three county judges – David Tulowitzki, Patrick Kiniry and Linda Fleming – gave the Cambria County Election Office permission to eliminate more than 30 polling places through consolidation. Election officials cited a decreasing population as a main reason the change was needed. The county expects to save $40,000 per election because of the consolidation.

“It makes some logic to have less places where people vote because there are less people (living here than in the past),” said Cambria County Commissioner Mark Wissinger. “The voting equipment today is much better. It definitely saves us money. We considered all of that.”

Numerous citizens objected to the plan, citing concerns about increased travel distances and possible disenfranchisement.

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