Voters pose questions for commission hopefuls

BROOKVILLE — The candidates for the Jefferson County Commission participated in a candidate’s forum Tuesday at the Jefferson County Courthouse.

The forum was sponsored by the Brookville and Punxsutawney Area and the Greater DuBois Area Chamber of Commerce, TURN (Taxpayers United for Representation Now) and Pennsylvana Freedom Fighters.

Each candidate was given time to answer several questions read by moderator Randy Bartley.

Wednesday’s Spirit featured the first question, regarding how government should be transparent for the people to easily follow.

Here are more questions asked at the forum.

Should the county permit the drilling of Marcellus Shale wells in non-watershed areas of the county?

• Jeff Pisarcik, a Democrat incumbent, said Marcellus Shale is already here, and he is lucky enough to serve as chairman of the county’s Marcellus Shale Committee. He also sits on the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) Marcellus board.

He said commissioners must to be neutral, and the most important thing is the environment and community health.

Many people think the county has a lot of power, but it can’t regulate Marcellus Shale drilling, which must be done through the state, he said.

• Ira Sunderland, a former commissioner and Republican challenger, said anyone can see the price of gas — $3.99 — at the pumps.

He said something must be done about where the United States purchases its gas supplies and drills for Marcellus gas, but there must be controls for safety.

• Jim McIntyre, a Republican incumbent, said everyone should be mindful of the issues surrounding Marcellus drilling, such as conservation, destruction of land and infrastructure.

He said he is a member of the natural gas task force, and drilling and permitting must be done sensibly so it may produce a positive outcome, with an increase in the county’s tax base.

• Pat McFall, a Democratic challenger, said he personally benefits from Marcellus Shale drilling and is employed by two separate companies in the county. Most of his surveying is in Elk County, Tioga and Washington counties.

McFall said he observes that there are many government agencies, including DEP, that are monitoring drilling sites. He also said private citizens with large amounts of property learn that drilling on their property it is a life-changing experience, and that the government should allow landowners to have a choice.

• Dave Black, a former commissioner and a Republican challenger, said he knows very little about Marcellus drilling, except he would like to have some of it, saying that he supports anything that can come into the county and create good-paying jobs and nice new homes to increase the tax base.

He said he helped to create the first mineral tax when he was a commissioner in 1986, so the gas companies need to pay their fair share. After he left office, the tax was repealed.

Black said there are environmental and health issues that must also be considered.

• Paul Corbin, a Republican incumbent, said all candidates agree that Marcellus drilling is already here and will continue to develop over the next 30 years.

Corbin said the county commissioners don’t have a lot of say as to what happens with drilling. But he added that they don’t want to see history repeated, such as what happened with coal mining and the environmental problems and tax dollars spent to reclaim properties.

Corbin said he does, however, want to maximize the benefits of gas drilling, but not repeat previous environmental problems in the county.

• Tom Swab, a Democratic challenger, said he doesn’t have a problem with drilling in a non-watershed area.

Swab said he recently attended a meeting in DuBois on Marcellus drilling and what can happen if it isn’t regulated.

“The state has to get off its butt and start helping the counties to control this problem,” he said.

• Paul Bishop, a Republican challenger, said he is all for drilling for gas in Jefferson County, and that he is already benefitting from it, as he has two rentals in Punxsy that he rents to a Texas gas company.

He said officials must be careful with the watershed, and make sure drilling companies restore the land to its original state once their work is completed.

In 2000, the Jefferson County general fund expenditures were $5.3 million, and in 2009, it increased to $8.5 million. How much of this increase of expenditures was unnecessary, and can it be reduced in the future?

• Sunderland said sometimes, there’s going to be an increase in expenditures, whether it’s from the state or if it’s not generated through the county. He said he couldn’t elaborate on that at this time.

• McIntyre said there were increases, and that everyone should look at their own households and the increases that everyone has endured.

He said in running county government, commissioners have the same cost increases that everyone else does, such as utilities, employment and health care costs.

• McFall said every year, he puts out his budget and doesn’t anticipate the many increases throughout the year.

McFall said he doesn’t know about any unnecessary expenditures, and that all he can do is look into it.

• Black said he doesn’t have any data to verify those figures, saying he wasn’t there and can’t say if every dime that was spent needed to be spent.

He said the $2 million debt incurred to fund the first three years of the bond issue to restore the courthouse was a waste of money. He also said he wouldn’t have spent $75,000 in legal fees to go to the state Supreme Court for a losing appeal that resulted in hiring back an employee.

Black said he wasn’t there and he wasn’t going to point fingers when he doesn’t know.

• Corbin said anyone can go over the budget line-item by line-item, but there are several things commissioners have done to keep expenses down, such as using Open Flow Gas that locked in the price for natural gas for the winter heating season and protects the county from the fluctuations in price. The commission also entered into a contract with a company to provide an electric rate that is comparable to other counties.

He said every day, the commission looks at ways to save the taxpayers money.

• Swab said he couldn’t speak to the figures, and that anyone who thinks that costs aren’t going up — especially concerning the state budget — isn’t paying attention to the state of the economy.

He said the Brookville Area School District, where he resides, cut $1.5 million for its 2011-12 budget.

Swab said it is pretty tough to cut that much from a school budget, and the same applies to the county: There’s only so much that can be cut before a tax hike is needed.

• Bishop said he wasn’t familiar enough with the county’s budget, but when the cash flow isn’t coming at his business, you have to eliminate things.

Bishop said he doesn’t believe the county is any different, and cuts are necessary.

• Pisarcik said the courtroom housing Tuesday’s forum also houses Common Pleas Court, and that as long as there is crime, court costs will continue to rise.

“As long as it’s busy, our taxes will keep going up,” he said, adding that there are many state-mandated funds that the county has no control over.

“I don’t care who is standing here as a commissioner; when the state informs us, we have to do it. There’s no choice,” Pisarcik said.

Do you support a severance tax on natural gas which will go to Harrisburg, or would you support Sen. Joe Scarnati’s proposal for an impact fee that would go to the communities?

• McIntyre said no matter what it is called, the money should come back to the municipalities affected by Marcellus Shale drilling in order to deal with infrastructure and other issues.

• McFall said he believes there should be an impact fee.

“Why should big business go around and not pay any tax dollars, while small businesses have to pay taxes?” he said.

He said the drilling companies are so big, they believe they shouldn’t have to pay anything. And they don’t check on a municipality’s ordinances and laws.

McFall said this tax or impact fee will give municipalities power so gas companies can be held accountable.

• Black said he supports Scarnati’s proposal more than the others, and that he doesn’t think it’s fair to tax one driller because it is drilling a deep well, and not tax the company drilling a shallow well.

“If they’re doing business in Texas, then they should be able to do business in Pennsylvania,” Black said.

• Corbin said the fee should be retained in the county, because every time money is sent to Harrisburg, it disappears, or not as much comes back that was sent there.

Corbin said it’s important to have a tax because once the drilling is completed, there are roads that will need to be repaired, and increased costs in corrections and Children & Youth Services.

He said the counties, townships and boroughs need to be paid.

• Swab said he believes that there should be a tax on drilling, citing road damage, sewers and the legal issues that continue to rise because the legislature has not done anything.

“We’re sitting on a big problem,” Swab said. “There needs to be a tax that should go into a fund.”

• Bishop said he agrees that the drilling industry should be taxed, and if the state keeps the money, it will end up going to the larger counties, and very little will come back to local governments.

• Pisarcik said he agreed that if a tax is collected, it should remain local.

“However, as long as the PUC is going to collect the money as explained in that bill, we all need to be proactive and control our own money,” he said.

• Sunderland said every time a business wants to come into Pennsylvania, the first Harrisburg wants to do is tax it.

Sunderland said the drilling industry has brought employment and tax money for the state, municipalities and townships.

He said that he agrees that an impact fee is needed to recover funding for the damage done to the roads, bridges and clean up the mud on the roads.

Would you support the development of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department into a full-time police force like in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties?

• McFall said coming from a small municipality, he believes there are benefits, noting that his town — Corsica, of which he is mayor — didn’t have a police department and sometimes had to wait for the state police to respond, which could take time.

“The presence of a police car patrolling the area deters a lot of crime,” he said, adding that along the Interstate 80 corridor, it is very easy to commit a crime, get back out and onto the highway.

• Black said Jefferson County could not convert the sheriff’s department into a police force because it is not home-ruled, in which government officials run it any way they want. He said Jefferson County is not a home-ruled county.

Black said if it would become home ruled — which requires a vote of the constituency — he would support it if he had the ability to do so.

“We have 46,000 people who live in Jefferson County,” he said. “If we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it.”

• Corbin said Jefferson County Sheriff Carl Gotwald had approached the commissioners about the possibility of his department increasing some of its powers. He also said it has been noted that there are areas of the county with very little police protection.

He said the first thing that would need to be done is to perform a cost analysis to see what the benefits are, how much tax money would be required to pay that bill, and it’s not going to be free.

• Swab said he agreed that it would require a cost analysis, and statistics would have to be obtained to see if it is necessary.

“The way things are now with the economy, it would have to be evaluated,” he said.

• Bishop said he, too, would ask for a cost analysis to see if it’s feasible.

He said he wonders if this move would do away with local police and create one police station.

It would cost the whole county “big bucks,” Bishop said.

• Pisarcik said everyone would agree that there aren’t enough police officers on the streets in the county.

Pisarcik said the drugs coming into the county and off Interstate 80 are one of the drug dealers’ main arteries, and having more police to deter it is a nice thought, but would be expensive.

He said there has been a push for the state police to start charging townships for police protection.

“It would be too costly and break every township’s budget,” Pisarcik said, adding that it could be the same concept if the sheriff would have police powers.

• Sunderland said if he was in office, the last thing he would cut would be the police department if revenues became short.

“If you cut the police, your drug dealers will move in where there isn’t any enforcement,” he said.

Sunderland said the sheriff would do a great job, but when he was in office previously, he and his fellow commissioners looked into the idea, and the cost of insurance was too high.

• McIntyre said the concept is good, but the increase in operating costs would have to be considered.