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May 14, 2013

COMMISSIONERS CORNER | Commissioners’ job is to focus on whole county

EBENSBURG — Most people say “Thank you” when they receive over a million dollars.

This is in response to Wes Bowser’s May 5 Readers Forum letter, where he questioned the logic of the county commissioners’ decision to focus on economic development along with education.

Mr. Bowser maintains that paying Pennsylvania Highlands Community College over $1 million is not enough and will adversely affect the students attending the college.

As commissioners, we would like to respond to Mr. Bowser and provide a bit more background on the process. (Please note that although Penn Highlands reported that the decision was final, there has been no final decision made to date – that decision will require a county budget process and possibly associated legislation. We were being proactive and responsible by letting Penn Highlands know ahead of time of this change in funding.)

 We do not know what “Swiss cheese logic” is, so we will just stick to some facts that we would like to provide:

The county commissioners have consistently supported economic development and businesses within Cambria County in order to turn around the citizens’ No. 1 concern for our county – a lack of jobs capable of supporting a lifestyle and family.

We should understand that Cambria County has been losing approximately 1,000 people a year for the past 70 years.  Without a change in job opportunities, this number will continue or even increase.

Without families in the county or very few of them, Penn Highlands is at risk of folding.  There is no reason to have a college if there are no students to attend.

We are the first set of commissioners who have a stated policy toward economic development to support job creators (businessmen) in order to encourage job growth within the county.

As county commissioners, we must consider the health and welfare of the whole county. 

Since job creation (through economic development) is the only way to reverse the population trend (and we are forecast to go even lower), we believe that economic development not only assists the county, but also directly helps Penn Highlands. 

And, in fact, not focusing on economic development may very well “rob our youth” of any hope, opportunities or future that we may be able to provide them (should we not keep in mind the larger picture of how important a job is).

The $150,000 reduction means that the $1.2 million that our county has been providing to Penn Highlands will become $1.05 million beginning in January.

This is a little over a 1 percent change in Penn Highlands’ more than $12 million budget.

Starting in August, this equates to a $40 fee increase per semester per student. This might go to $70 per semester per student by the fall of 2014.

One question we need to ask is:  “How comfortable are you with raising your taxes to pay for student education?” 

Because in the end, you will be paying for it whether it comes as a subsidy from the county to Penn Highlands or whether we raise taxes to directly offset student costs. 

What we have accomplished is tax neutral – no additional taxes.

Additionally, there are bureaucratic games that can be played with budgets. As of last December, Penn Highlands leadership – president of the board of trustees, Jack Cavanaugh, and president of Penn Highlands, Walter Asonevich – stated that the college had more than $200,000 in excess revenue. It was suggested that this money be used for employee bonuses that would have initially totaled almost $100,000. After a great deal of discussion, it was decided that Dr. Asonevich would receive his bonus of over $7,000 while the employees would not receive theirs. The issue of bonuses is strictly a matter of where people want to place their priorities, and it does provide some insight as to what is happening to your taxpayer dollars.

Secondly, Cambria County is the only county that pays Penn Highlands taxpayer dollars to supplement its college. This is good business as it does provide our students with a lower cost of education. However, let us not lose sight that these dollars are co-mingled into a budget that provides or will provide education in Somerset, Blair and Huntingdon counties, too.

Hopefully this addresses much more than just the education side of life. It addresses the very core of your quality of life without which educational opportunities might altogether disappear.

Mr. Bowser’s reference to “foreigners” we can only assume is in reference to the Foreign Trade Zone – a concept that could bring jobs to the area, increase our tax base and change people’s lives for the better. If you have another idea, we would love to hear it. We have not turned away anyone who has wanted to come talk to us about economic development opportunities. But please also come with your ideas on how to fund it. Many ideas can cost more than they are worth, which is where implementing them is very difficult.

Finally, this is not a Republican or Democratic issue/problem. But, we will never be able to proceed until people decide to roll up their sleeves and quit complaining but rather start constructively contributing.

 The bottom line: Without jobs, there is a reduced tax base, there are fewer families, there are fewer students and Penn Highlands is not only at risk of receiving less money, but could be at risk of closing.

Nobody wants that to happen.

Mr. Bowser, please let us know what your constructive ideas are and how you might fund them.

The Cambria County Board of Commissioners includes Doug Lengenfelder, Mark Wissinger and Tom Chernisky. They jointly write this monthly column on county issues.

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