By LaKeshia Knarr
LOCK HAVEN – Locals had an opportunity to talk to state officials about interests and concerns Wednesday afternoon at a Cabinet in Your Community event held at the Durrwachter Alumni Conference Center.
Six of Governor Tom Wolf’s Cabinet members were present for the panel discussion, including Department of Community & Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin, Acting Secretary of Labor & Industry W. Gerard “Jerry” Oleksiak, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, Interim Secretary of State Robert Torres, Revenue Secretary C. Daniel Hassell, and Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards.
Dozens of community members and officials from nearby counties attended the event, which featured a question-and-answer segment. Topics discussed ranged from broadband internet access, natural gas and all-terrain vehicles, to roadway improvements, economic development and more.
Former Lock Haven Mayor Richard P. Vilello Jr., who now serves as Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs and Development at DCED, welcomed the state officials to his hometown, and Julie Slomski, director of the Governor’s Northwest Regional Office, introduced panelists and served as a moderator during the event. Slomski noted it was the second Cabinet in Your Community to be held and said Gov. Wolf launched the initiative to provide a platform for conversations between department secretaries and the communities they serve.
Each secretary had the opportunity to describe what the department they oversee does within the commonwealth before answering specific questions from the crowd.
Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins noted there is one agricultural plant in Centre and sought information on how to encourage more processors. Secretary Redding said the commonwealth does a “phenomenal job” of producing goods and can do better in processing them into other byproducts. Redding said he interested in continuing conversations and that looking at the global market will be an important consideration.
Don Kiel, SEDA-COG Natural Gas Cooperative executive director, said the group is looking to fill gaps in rural Pennsylvania through virtual pipelines, and asked if there is interest or opportunities to support a program geared toward the agricultural industry. Kiel also questioned if it would make sense to couple natural gas with broadband delivery in the rural region. Secretary Redding said, “Yes, there is a need,” and that he would like to continue talks on the matter. Secretary Davin added that he believe it is “a great idea” and said the pipe plan was pitched a few years ago to the state legislature, but there may be opportunities to include a virtual pipeline plan in that or to develop a new program.
COMMUNITY & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
One attendee said he believed “Pennsylvania needs to be far more aggressive” in recruiting people from neighboring states to help with population decline and economic development. Secretary Davin said the focus of DCED is on companies that are already within the state because there is an opportunity to grow those businesses. “We also have an obligation to market Pennsylvania … We have a tremendous story to tell here and unless we tell it, people don’t know,” Davin said.
Brent Fish, owner of Fish Real Estate, said he is a partner in an industrial development business and companies often want to know what Pennsylvania has to offer them for relocating. The Keystone Opportunity Zones program has been a deciding factor in decisions, he said, and asked if there are plans to expand the program. Secretary Davin said “it’s a very, very good program” that has been utilized a lot, but that since taxes aren’t paid within those zones, it is strategically used to ensure there is revenue coming back to the state from other zones. Davin noted the state looks at underlying infrastructure to encourage business, such as access to low-cost energy, plans to upgrade infrastructure, and increasing access to broadband services.
LABOR & INDUSTRY
Lyn Garling, a Centre County farmer, asked how the state is looking to be more welcoming of individuals seeking farm work, including migrant workers. Secretary Oleksiak said that Gov. Wolf’s apprenticeship program continues to grow, but noted he wasn’t sure how many of those programs focused specifically on agriculture. He said he intends to look into that and see how it can be improved. Secretary Redding, pointing to educational initiatives and state programs, said the state needs to be “more active nationally for that labor and making sure we have access to those skills.”
Julie Steinbacher, an elder law attorney based in Williamsport, brought up the issue of realty tax transfers and said it is a topic she often deals with while helping people develop succession plans. She said the law used to require step-children to pay the tax when buying land from a step-parent, and although that has been remedied, the issue still stands for step-grandchildren. Secretary Hassell said altering the law would require legislative action, but that it is something he could look into.
Another individual focused on the corporate tax rate, and asked if there is hope for lowering it. Secretary Hassell and Secretary Davin both noted that Gov. Wolf has proposed a rate that is half of the current rate. “We are continuing to hope the legislature will address that issue,” Hassell said.
Clinton County Commissioner Pete Smeltz asked Secretary Torres whether the State Department would consider a statewide plan for updating voting machines and propose funding assistance to the legislature. Secretary Torres said there is an election subcommittee in place that considers cyber security as it relates to elections a priority. “I think the time is right,” he said. “These discussions are happening and in the very near future we’ll be seeing some… recommendations.”
Lisa Davis of the Pennsylvania Office for Rural Health asked how rural health care service transportation is represented in the PennDOT Connects program, which seeks to engage communities and improve project planning, design and delivery. Secretary Richards said department staff is looking at where medical facilities are located, routes typically used, and have begun conversations with ride-sharing companies to see if their business models can be replicated. Richards added they are looking for gaps, working with communities, and seeking funding for projects.
Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder, referencing local municipalities’ moves to allow all-terrain vehicles on township roads, asked what can be done to legalize use of state roads to connect these municipalities. Secretary Richards said safety is the department’s first concern, and noted there are ATV operators who do not hold driver’s licenses. In addition to such risks, she said, responsibilities, environmental and permitting issues need to be considered. Indicating “we are not anti-ATV in any way,” Richards said it would be helpful to know where the connections are needed.
Bill Siegel, SEDA-COG executive director, asked about broadband services to the region and asked if PennDOT is interested in facilitating access. Secretary Richards said Gov. Wolf has tasked an individual with this issue and gathering information from each agency. Richards also said she is having discussions with her counterpart in Utah about how that state laid conduit as they laid roads over the last 10 years; she looks to see how that could work for Pennsylvania.
Joe Kantz, representing North Shore Railroad, and also a Snyder County commissioner, said the average railcar removes two or three cars from the roads and asked how PennDOT is working with DCED to utilize rail for industry. Secretary Richards said “it’s a constant discussion,” noting there is a statewide rail plan and the department understands how important freight is to the state.