Candidates for one of three positions of Clearfield County Commissioner gathered Thursday night at the Lock Haven University’s Clearfield Campus for a political debate. Pictures are from left, Trudy Lumadue, Mark McCracken, Antonio “Tony” Scotto and John Sobel. (Photo by Kimberly Finnigan)
CLEARFIELD – Candidates vying for leadership of Clearfield County got the chance to weigh in on some questions from the community Thursday evening.
Clearfield County Commissioner candidates Trudy Lumadue and Mark McCracken, both Democrats, and Antonio Scotto and John Sobel, both Republicans, participated in a political debate hosted by Lock Haven University’s Clearfield Campus and the Clearfield Chamber of Commerce.
The debate was moderated by Richard Hughes and opened by having each candidate give a brief background of their experience and personal history before being given the opportunity to answer several questions.
Hughes said the first group of questions had been selected by polling residents from all over the county. Each candidate was given a list of these questions in advance, while the remaining questions would be asked by members of the audience.
The first question was what are your plans to stimulate economic growth?
Sobel said during his term as commissioner, he has been working to reopen the old railroad line between Curwensville and DuBois. He said this project would decrease shipping costs and open new markets.
He said specifically, the existing ethanol and powdered metal industry would greatly benefit from the railroad and having more shipping options would add a greater appeal to other businesses and encourage them to move to Clearfield County.
He said the unemployment rate in Clearfield County is “too high” and while economic growth is happening, it is happening much too slowly.
Scotto said he is also in favor of the railroad project, which would appeal particularly to the coal industry. He said he would work to gain more support for the manufacturing and food processing industries.
He said it was important to speak to local businesses to see who they are working with and try to get those companies to relocate to this area. He said it was important to “market ourselves” and to create an atmosphere for businesses with a sound, balanced county budget and good infrastructure.
McCracken said he is always ready to react if an opportunity presented itself. He mentioned the WhiteWave Foods plant in DuBois and said when the county was contacted about the project, it was critical that the commissioners did everything in their power to get involved.
He said it was a group effort with Sandy Township, DuBois City and the county to encourage the company to come to the area. He said the county has also been working to finalize the purchase of the old K-mart building.
He said it was critical for the county to work with the local municipalities and to do everything possible to gain support for these projects on the state level.
Lumadue said she feels it is important to be proactive. She said she would work to develop a group to examine what works for other counties with similar resources and demographics. She said the county has plenty of locations, which would be appealing to larger facilities, such as manufacturing companies.
She said it was also important to ensure that when new businesses come, they employ the local work-force. She said the county needs to become more proactive in researching the different types of businesses that are out there and encourage them to come to Clearfield County.
The second question pertained to the Clearfield County Economic Development Corp. (Clearly Ahead). The county allocates $160,000 to Clearly Ahead and has an in-staff grant writer. Did the candidates feel there should be more or less money given to Clearly Ahead?
Scotto said the CCEDC is not run by the county. He said the money is a contribution that is given to the CCEDC. He said the county has the option to not renew the contract with the CCEDC if the county feels the CCEDC is not living up to expectations.
He said while the CCEDC has brought some good things to the county, he feels there is a lot more they could be doing. He also said the grant writer does not work exclusively for the CCEDC, but is utilized to assist any municipality or county entity in obtaining grant money. He stressed that the county should always review the performance of any entity they deal with.
McCracken said the county is presently taking a closer look at the contractual relationship between the county and the CCEDC. He said he would like to see more coming out of the CCEDC and feels they can utilize the county’s contribution better. He said the contract with the CCEDC is short-term and the county has “outs.” He said the present contract expires in December of 2016 and he is in favor of looking into other options.
Lumadue said the relationship between the county and the CCEDC needs to be examined in detail. She said the contribution needs to be decreased and the way the county has been looking at economic development needs to be revamped.
She said the county needs to become more involved and more research needs to be done into the different types of businesses that could be encouraged to come to Clearfield County.
She said nothing will get done if the county sits and waits for opportunities to come to them. She said she would look to hire someone in-house to research different types of companies, such as the gas industry and the bio-products industry.
Sobel said he doesn’t feel the county is getting “the most bang for our buck.” He said the unemployment rate is too high and the economic growth has been too slow. He said the county was operating on economic development policies that were created in the 1990’s.
He said counties must go through changes in order to keep up with the economic changes. He said he wants to create dialogue with local political and businesses leaders. He said the county needs to take a long, hard look at whether or not economic development in the county is being handled properly.
The third question asked if the candidates were in favor of the consolidation of municipalities, specifically of Clearfield Borough and Lawrence Township. All candidates said they were in favor of the consolidation.
The fourth question asked if the candidates believed in term limits and whether they would be a full-time or part-time employee.
Lumadue said she does not believe in term limits. She said the voters will determine the term of a candidate. She said if the voters feel a candidate is doing a good job, they will continue to vote to keep that candidate in office.
She said while she has a part-time law practice, she plans on being a full-time employee. She said while the county work-day is typically a 6.5 hour day, her hours will be determined by what needs to be done. She said if something needs done, she will stay as long as it takes to get that job done.
Sobel echoed Lumadue in saying the voters decide the term limits. He said while he also has a part-time law practice, he spent his past two terms as a full-time employee. He said his work week ranges from 32-40 hours, but that he often is called to attend evening meetings and has had worked 50 hours per week when needed.
Scotto said as the county controller, his day typically runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. He said while he is a small business owner, he has a manager overseeing the day-to-day operations of his business.
He said he chose to run for commissioner instead of for his present position of controller because the commissioners set the policies for the county and its employees, and he wants to enact a more efficient government.
McCracken said he has always been a full-time commissioner. He said he does not have an outside business and has always had an open-door policy if the residents needed him. He said when he left his career in information technology, he took a pay-cut to become a commissioner, and his duties have always been his top priority. He also said that term limits were determined by the voters.
The fifth question was: are the candidates in favor of a pay increase?
Sobel said no. He said he has intentionally not taken a pay raise twice and that he very rarely takes any compensation for mileage.
Scotto said he wouldn’t rule out a small cost-of-living increase, but he said when the commissioners determine their salaries, that decision also includes the other elected offices within the county. He said he feels the commissioners’ salary should be a separate item.
McCracken said the county code puts the legal responsibility of setting salaries of the county’s elected offices on the commissioners. He said this is addressed every four years. He said for 2016-19, the commissioners have voted to freeze the salaries of all officials.
However, McCracken said the county does not set the salaries of the judges and the district attorney. He said those salaries are set by the state. He said this is the second freeze he has been a part of. He said he doesn’t think the voters “have the stomach” to see the local elected officials get raises.
Lumadue said the salaries for the next term have already been set, and she is not looking to change them.
The sixth question was: are the candidates in favor of arming the security guards in the county buildings. All candidates said they were in favor of allowing the security guards to carry guns, provided they receive the proper training.
The seventh question was: are the candidates in favor of expanding the county jail to help with overcrowding and to eliminate the need to pay other counties to house Clearfield County’s criminals.
McCracken said presently, there are 10 inmates from Clearfield County being housed in Centre County. He said it is “inevitable” that changes will have to be made at the jail.
He said within the next four years, the county will need to decide what will be done. He said the county is already discussing options. He said the judges can decide to send an offender to jail, or to utilize other options such as probation.
Lumadue said she was in favor of expanding the jail. She said the judges have been diligent in knowing what the population numbers at the jail are and have delayed sentencing and done what they can to expedite the transportation of those going to state prisons.
Sobel said he is in favor of expanding the jail, but is concerned about the expense of the project. He said he has suggested expanding the home-detention program for lower-level offenders. He said the home-detention program has been successful in Cambria County, but it’s important that the judges maintain their level of authority.
He said if a judge tells a person they must pay their child support or their fines or they go to jail, they must still be able to send that person to jail if they don’t follow through. He said it may also be possible to build a separate facility for lower-level offenders.
Scotto echoed Sobel in the option of keeping lower-level offenders out of the general population through alternative means, such as home-detention.
He said many people are going to jail for failing to pay child support or fines, but how can these individuals pay when they are in jail. He said there is a work-release program, but it’s difficult to find employers willing to hire inmates.
The eighth question involved the tax decreases the county has seen over the past several years; did the candidates think that taxes will have to increase?
Lumadue said yes.
Sobel said with no state budget, it was too early to say, but he does think the taxes will have to increase.
Scotto said yes.
McCracken said he will work to maintain the taxes.
When asked about the ongoing legal battle with PA Waste LLC, all the candidates said they were against the Boggs Township landfill.
The 10th question was about the DuBois Airport’s request to increase their funding from $75,000 to $150,000. Would the candidates be in favor of the increase and would they stipulate that money be used for more advertising?
All said no to such a high increase, but they are in favor of seeing more of the present contribution being used to advertise the services at the airport.
The 11th question was about the tourism board and the grants being distributed using the hotel tax money.
Scotto said businesses have to apply for the grants, which are usually used for advertising to bring more tourism to the area. He said he is satisfied with the way the grants are being handled as long as they are awarded to entities and events that continue to draw people to Clearfield County. He said anyone can apply for the grants and in most cases, a matching contribution is required.
McCracken said any business can put on events, which can be tourism-related. He said the program has been successful and he supports the tourism board.
Lumadue said if elected, she would continue to support the program. She said most first-time applicants are given the grants in order to see if the event is successful. She said the events that work (to bring in tourists) continue to be funded. She said all the grants require a match, and she would continue supporting what works.
Sobel said he also is satisfied with the tourism board. He said at first, the entity “lost their way” for a while, but they have a good board in place and they have “righted themselves.”
He said as long as the funding is being used to attract tourism, he is supportive. He said the county has questioned why some businesses and events are given funding and some not, but encourages everyone to apply.
When asked about increasing the county’s reserve fund, presently at $1 million, Scotto said the county has had to cut the budget “close” for next year, and it would be wise to have more in the reserve, particularly with the budget impasse. He said he would like to see it increase to $2 million.
McCracken said the county is hit with new “strains” all the time. He said he is comfortable with maintaining the present reserve until he sees more from the state budget. He said he’d rather look at the county’s cash flow as opposed to the reserves.
Lumadue said she would like to see the reserve increased to $1.5 million.
Sobel said he wants to keep the reserve where it is. He said the county has very little debt and is financially “pretty healthy,” according to the audits.
All the candidates said they are in favor of supporting the natural gas industry, but opposed to injection wells.
When asked what the county would do to encourage college students to stay in the area,
Sobel said money generated through the Marcellus shale gas industry to work with the local colleges to train young people to work in this field.
Scotto said the county would need to look into finding out what industries the area already has and what is needed to train workers in those fields.
McCracken said there is a great shortage in the area for court reporters as well as in food technology. He said he would encourage students to study those fields.
Lumadue said the county would need to work with the young people to find out what their interests are and to let them know what types of jobs are available and to try to match them into a career they would fit.
When asked about the inequality in property taxes, all the candidates said they were aware of the inequality, but it would be something that would have to be handled on the state level, not the county level.
When asked about service from the Area Transportation Authority, McCracken said he has spent a great deal of time discussing this problem with ATA. He said there are people in the county who really rely on those services and suggested the ATA use smaller busses. He said there was a lot of concern that the county was going to cancel ATA’s services but that is not the case.
Lumadue said she wants to maintain the services, particularly with what’s been happening with Penn Highlands. She said many people rely on those services to get to their medical appointments, but she feels there should be more advertising and that the routes could be more economical.
Sobel said the county has been working with ATA to get new and better routes, smaller vehicles and also more data about the company.
Scotto said he would look at more effective lines, smaller buses, and better routes.
The final question was: with the strain the state budget impasse is putting on the county, should the state representatives be forced to stay in Harrisburg until a budget is passed or not paid?
Sobel said they should not be paid. He said many of the local state employees are not being paid as a result of the impasse, so why should the county suffer.
Scotto said the county needs to keep the pressure on the representatives, and they should not be paid.
McCracken said the representatives should be kept in Harrisburg until a budget can be passed.
Lumadue said the representatives should be mandated to stay in session until a budget is passed.