‘State of the County’ Covers Wide Range of Topics

The Indiana County Board of Commissioners spent nearly two hours on Friday May 6 tackling questions about the “State of the County” at an Indiana County Chamber of Commerce breakfast event at the IUP Hilton Garden Inn.

“It feels so good to see parking lots so full,” Commissioner Robin Gorman said, to a full house of at least 100 attendees, that in turn brought at least some of the vehicles that filled up the lot of the hotel across Pratt Drive from the Kovalchick Convention & Athletic Complex.

Others were there for such events as this weekend’s Indiana University of Pennsylvania commencement exercises.

“None of us figured on a pandemic,” Gorman said, recalling the past two years. Last year’s “State of the County” event was conducted virtually.

Chamber President Mark Hilliard provided the questions on a wide range of topics as provided by chamber members, as well as others including at least two IUP students.

COVID-19 did not help the shrinking of the county’s population, though the fall from 88,000 to 83,000 was a process going on before the pandemic arrived.

“It is a concern that we are losing people, and we are losing them at a rate that I would not want to lose them,” Gorman said.

It also isn’t the only problem for the county. Commissioners Board Chairman Mike Keith said COVID-19 was a factor in the loss of $9 million from county budgets, though restructuring efforts brought that loss down to $2 million.

Keith said one department had no revenue stream, but restructuring has set it on a path where in four to five years “it should be self-sufficient.”

There also is the competition with other areas and other states.

“We have the highest corporate net income tax in the country (9.9 percent), and we skirt states that have zero corporate net income tax,” Gorman said.

On the other hand, there are partners with which the county regularly works, in business, in social services and in other venues, from agencies such as the Indiana County Tourist Bureau, the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board. And, the commissioners said, from the area’s financial institutions, including S&T Bank and First Commonwealth Bank, as well as educational institutions.

They answered questions about the development of the New Village Initiative on the former Wyoming Technical Institute campus in Burrell Township, and of Westmoreland County Community College, Challenger Learning Center, Indiana County Technology Center and the Indiana County Conservation District in the same area of White Township.

Keith said the “great partners out there” help “make Indiana County a better place to work, live and, as the chamber would say, to shop.”

Partnerships can come through in unusual ways. Expansion of the Indiana County Municipal Service Authority to Clymer Borough coincided with a loss of water there, prompting the authority to come through and fill Clymer’s need.

“That’s teamwork, behind the scenes,” Keith said.

And there are good things — including what COVID-19 brought, Keith said, in federal and state funding.

Commissioner Sherene Hess said the county and other rural areas are going to see an infusion of funding available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“If you don’t have infrastructure, your water and sewer and broadband,” Keith said, “(otherwise) nothing is going to come to this county. We have to plan for the future.”

There also is the $16 million coming from the American Rescue Plan Act to Indiana County.

“This isn’t a windfall, it is a lifeline,” Hess said. “So, I am very excited to see what the future will hold.

And there is the funding that is going toward broadband expansion, including $2.3 million in Community Development Block Grant CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding toward a fiber optic backbone across both northern and southern tiers of the county.

“It is a success story and a major challenge for us at the same time,” Hess said. “We’ve created a pathway.”

Hess said broadband expansion also is benefiting from Appalachian Regional Commission, Keystone Communities and other funding sources.

Hess also pointed to the “safety net” infrastructure, from such entities such as the Red Cross, The Salvation Army and the United Way. All three commissioners commented on efforts to deal with mental health, in a month that is dedicated to Mental Health Awareness, saying everyone should “take it seriously.” “It is the number one issue for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania,” said Hess, who is on the CCAP board and chairs its election reform committee.

She said 95 percent of Americans have access to “211,” but “it is hard to get the word out about it.”

The www.uwindianacounty.org website of United Way in Indiana County has details about 211, saying “with one toll-free call, text or online request to 211, anyone in need can get free and confidential connections” to such matters as health care, vaccination and health epidemic information, emergency counseling, disaster assistance, and supplemental food and nutrition programs.

The commissioners also called attention to efforts by the Indiana County Community Action Program to expand its supplemental food and nutrition programs, through a new facility being built in White Township.

Questioners called attention to a variety of issues, including how reapportionment is dividing the county between two congressional districts like the city of Ann Arbor

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, “has really supported and done a great job representing Indiana County,” Keith said.

But the commissioners’ board chairman is optimistic about what can happen with part of the county still in Thompson’s district and part in that where U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Peters Township, would be the congressman if he wins this year’s election.

“It is an opportunity, in a way,” Keith said.