The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

News

February 8, 2014

Declining population means big changes for Cambria

EBENSBURG — Unless there is a sharp influx of new residents into Cambria County, beginning in 2021 there will be two fewer row offices and more than 200 fewer employees at the courthouse.

The problem: During the past several decades the county has been losing population at an average rate of 1,000 per year. According to the 2010 census, Cambria now has population figures that push it from a 4th-class county to a 5th-class county.

The population figures at 143,678 were low enough in the 2010 census to warrant the drop in status, but in the hopes population will rebound, the county is given another decade to turn things around.

“The state gives us until the next census so that we don’t have to jump through all these hoops in a short period of time,” Cambria County President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said.

Between 2000 and 2010, the county lost 6.4 percent of its population.

Current trends see the population declining to 133,000 in six years, the time of the next census. Efforts to reduce the number of employees already have begun.

State guidelines stipulate that there should be one county employee for every 214 residents. That means the 852 people employed by the county at the end of 2013 will need to be about 622, or 230 fewer.

“I don’t want to see anybody lose their jobs, so when people retire, we’re not replacing them,” said Commissioner Thomas Chernisky. “We’re being responsible and preparing for it, but a lot of things can happen between now and then.”

Chernisky uses the example of Williamsport, Lycoming County, which suffered from declining population until about five years ago when the Marcellus Shale boom hit.

“Things do change. No one knows what’s going to happen in the next six-plus years,” he said. “But we need to prepare for a declining population.”

Commissioner Mark Wissinger agrees.

“We don’t want people to lose their jobs. We don’t want to lay anyone off, so we’re doing it through attrition,” Wissinger said.

The change will have the greatest impact on four row officers and their staffs.

The office of Prothonotary Deb Martella will merge with Susan Kuhar’s Clerk of Courts.

Patty Berkebile’s office of Register of Wills will become one with Andrea Fedore Simms’ Recorder of Deeds office.

The Orphans Court, which controls the highly sensitive information about adoptions, will merge with what will be the Register of Wills and Recorder of Deeds, Lengenfelder said, citing the county code.

While a 5th class county receives fewer federal and state dollars than a 4th class county, also declining with the population is the local tax base, which is a significant source of revenue, Lengenfelder said.

“If the tax base is decreasing, you can’t have everything you used to have,” he said. “You have to make some hard decisions.”

The population decline began long before the coal mines stopped operating and before Bethlehem Steel moved on, he said. It’s a trend the county has not been able to stop and it dates back to World War II.

U.S. Census figures show that Cambria County in 1950 had 209,541 residents.

County Chief Clerk Steve Ettien said Cambria is not just crunching the numbers and reducing employee positions through attrition, but is looking to other 5th class counties to see how they do things.

“The ones we’re focusing on are Lebanon, with 134,000, and Lycoming, with 117,000,” Ettien said.

Cambria is looking at the other counties’ budgets – what they are spending on their prisons, Children and Youth Services and other agencies, Lengenfelder said.

“As people retire or move on, we’re taking a good hard look at whether we need that position,” he said.

Using the attrition approach, over the past few years the employee levels at the county have dropped from more than 1,000 to just over 850.

Estimates are that just by not replacing those who retire, the county should hit the 650 employee level at or before the 2020 census, officials said.

“It’s not a knee-jerk reaction. We’re trying to do it in a manner where we take care of the citizens of the county and the employees,” Ettien said.

Lengenfelder pointed out that the state has already reacted to the county’s drop in residents by reducing the number of district judge positions from 10 to eight.

The offices of Charity Nileski, Cresson, and Max Pavlovich, Richland, were merged with surrounding district judges’ offices effective Jan. 1.

Kathy Mellott covers the Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.

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