The Daily Courier: Fayette commissioners address issues at forum

Four candidates seeking three seats on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners participated in a forum at Penn State Fayette.

The event involved three incumbents, Republicans Scott Dunn and Dave Lohr, and Democrat Vincent Vicites, along with Democrat Geno Gallo.

The event was sponsored by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce.

Each candidate made an opening statement and answered five questions delivered by a moderator.

Candidates each had two minutes to respond to each question.

The candidates received question topics in advance of the forum but not the actual questions.

Question 1: What are your priorities for the first six months in office?

“Growth is definitely something that you have to focus on,” Gallo said. “The reality is that the population is on the decline and continues to decline.”

Gallo said poverty is an issue that needs tackled along with the budget.

“Fundamentality, one of the biggest problems in the county is poverty,” Gallo said. “That poverty chases out the best and the brightest.”

Gallo said the budget needs to be controlled and expressed concern over the county’s purchase of several buildings that will now need to be maintained.

Gallo said the county’s spending has been excessive for the past 36 months, something that needs to be a priority.

“We need to keep spending under control,” Gallo said. “We need to take care of the people and really tighten the war on poverty. We can’t leave anyone behind.”

Dave Lohr said he will concentrate on the budget and tighten spending. He cited his past terms and the tackling of budget problems in the past.

“When I came into office which was almost eight years ago there were overspending issues,” Lohr said. “One thing that we did implement was tighter spending to make sure that the budget was within standings and where it was supposed to be and businesses got paid, people got paid.”

Lohr said the commissioners stayed busy during the COVID-19 pandemic, never stepping away from their responsibilities.

“We were on the job the entire time,” Lohr said. “We made sure that people were getting taken care of.”

Lohr said he is also proud of the work that has been accomplished in his seven-plus years in office.

“I am very good at making sure that things get done,” he said. “We put things in gear and we made things happen.”

Vicites cited the budget as a main concern. He said setting a budget is the first thing a commissioner needs undertake.

Vicites tackled what he called misinformation about commissioners’ spending over the past and presented the current budget as an example.

“Right now, at three-fourths of the year, at 75%, our budget right now in the county is at 62%. So we are well under in our spending,” Vicites said.

Vicites said the county received money through the federal American Rescue Act and for COVID relief. That money needed to be spent or else it would have to be returned to the federal government.

“We decided to invest in the courthouse,” Vicites said. “We invested in the future of the county and long-term growth and development in the county. Fayette County is on the move.”

Dunn said infrastructure and energy are important issues that require focus.

Dunn said any money received from federal or state governments adds to county revenue and those sources must be used for designated expenses, increasing county expenditures.

“Our budget has gone up but that is all special revenues and special projects. My focus is going to be on building infrastructure and what infrastructure means to me is not only water and sewage but broadband and energy in Fayette County,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the commissioners are working with Columbia Gas and West Penn Power to seek ways to boost energy as a way to bring in new business.

Dunn plans to focus on health care, energy, education, aquaculture and promoting and expanding tourism.

“I am leaving no stone unturned to make Fayette County a better place to live,” Dunn said.

Question 2: What is your priority in terms of budgeting?

“I have watched the budget tighten,” Lohr said. “We have meetings every month with the departments and we are consistently saying, ‘watch the budget.’ We do want to cut the spending. We want to make sure that wasteful spending is not taking place.”

Lohr said good bond rates have helped, and the commissioners work to keep the budget within range.

Vicites cited good interest rates the county received allowed the prison project to come in under the projected $44 million budget.

“We are actually about a million and a half under budget,” Vicites said .

Vicites said that every county department is well under budget and money received from other government sources has to be put into the county budget.

Vicites cited lack of funding from the state, which was slow in passing a 2023 budget.

“The last time I checked we were owed $5 million, so that does hurt our cash flow and we are doing everything that we can to cut costs,” Vicites said.

Dunn said commissioners have tried to keep a tight rein on spending.

“We have actually spent $1million less this year then we spent in last year’s budget,” Dunn said. “I am a big believer as we budget every year, no new people, no new equipment, no new cars, unless they are grant funded. Leave no stone unturned looking for grant funding.”

Dunn said the largest portion of annual budgets is for salaries, benefits and retiree benefits.

Gallo cited the expense of the new buildings purchased and cost to maintain them.

“That is a legacy of spending that will plague taxpayers for years to come,” said Gallo.

He said the expansion of government is unnecessary and costly.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s grant money or not. Grant money does not keep the lights on. We can’t go on with this broad-base spending. There is a cause and effect for everything,” Gallo said.

Question 3: How would you help tackle the shortage of skilled workers to ensure the business community can grow?

Vicites said heath care is a growing industry in the county and education and training are eeded to fill open positions and positions that may be created with the expansion of health care options in the county.

Vicites said the Appalachian Regional Commission provided the Fayette County Career and Technical Institute with a grant for health care training.

“Hopefully we can get that up and runningm get people trained for medical-related jobs and the jobs of the future,” Vicites said.

Vicites said the answer to the labor shortage program is workforce development.

“We have to train our people for the current jobs that are open, yrain them and fill them and also train them for the jobs of the future,” Vicites said. “I’m committed to whatever it takes to train people to get those jobs filled.”

Dunn said the growth of the health care industry is what will turn around the county.

“What has to happen is that we need to educate and train our people for these jobs,” Dunn said. citing opportunities at WVU Medicine Uniontown Hospital, Penn Highlands Connellsville, Independence Health System, the Allegheny Health Network and other health care facilities.

Dunn said the county offers educational opportunities at Penn State Fayette, Laurel Business Institute and Fayette County Career and Technical Institute.

“These entities are now working toward navigating our children toward more education,” he said.

Gallo said the problem is declining population.

“We have more jobs than people,” Gallo said. “We’ve got to get people to stay. Our best and our brightest are leaving us.”

Gallo said he wants to see more opportunities offered for county residents to become home buyers. He said what is needed is to address the problems with poverty head-on.

“People need to own their own homes,” Gallo said. “We got to get people in homes and we have to take care of our own.”

Gallo said that many smaller businesses are closing because of lack of labor.

“They can’t get labor,” Gallo said. “Our favorite mom-and-pop restaurants can’t get labor. We need to get people here and get them to stay.”

Lohr said ample opportunities are available for education and scholarships in the county. He said the problem with labor is not something limited to Fayette County.

“The whole country has this problem. You see help wanted signs everywhere. Everyone has the same issue. It’s not just us,” Lohr said.

Lohr said housing is an important matter.

“We need to work hard to make sure that housing is available,” Lohr said. “We have a shortage of houses.”

Question 4: What is the most pressing need for infrastructure or capitol projects and what will your focus be?

Dunn said being able to offer power generated on site for business is a must for growth.

“We can have power that is generated onsite and not coming from miles and miles away, and that is a microgrid,” Dunn said. “That is something that we have the ability to do right here in Fayette County and that is something that is very promising for Fayette County.”

Dunn targeted the need for clean water adding he has been working with companies to ensure everyone in the county has clean water.

Gallo said infrastructure is needed but the focus should be on realistic projects.

“Any kind of infrastructure that we do has to be smart and has to make sense in the long term,” Gallo said. “You can’t just keep spending money on development and ideas that don’t have a real payback for the people. If we focus on the people that are here that will give us the best results, what we need is a change of direction.”

Lohr said the infrastructure bank is important to the county.

Aimed at helping municipalities and municipal authorities fund infrastructure projects, the Fayette County Infrastructure Bank allows such entities to apply for loans from a special county fund to be used as a quicker, more reliable option for financing necessary repair or improvement projects.

“This is something that was put together in this term and this is something that I highly support,” Lohr said.

Lohr discussed the need for broadband in the county and said it is an extremely expense undertaking. Lohr said commissioners are seeking grants to help the process.

Vicites said broadband is a necessity and will become available to everyone in Fayette County.

“It is the infrastructure of the future,” Vicites said.

Vicites cited the number of projects already completed in including extensive road work and $200 million of economic investment in infrastructure projects.

Vicites said he is a member of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission which will have $5 billion for infrastructure available to Fayette County and other areas of the region.

“I will make sure that Fayette County gets its fair share if not more,” Vicites said.

Question 5: How will you assist with the health and wellness of communities?

Gallo said the county should embrace one of the its biggest industries — agriculture.

“We need to do more for our farms,” Gallo said. “We need to make sure that fresh food is getting in to the hands of Fayette County residents, fed by Fayette County farmers.”

“Poverty is our war here,” Gallo said. “We need to take care of our people here and others will come. Our quality of life is going down. I don’t want to be negative but we have to be realistic.”

Lohr said health is a concern across the board and that commissioners focused on the need to help diabetics and others with health problems to lead healthier lifestyles.

“We live here we see all the garbage,” Lohr said, adding illegal drugs are also a problem.

“The only thing that we can do is to continue to keep cleaning up the county,” he said.

Lohr addressed comments about declining county population.

“Population reduction is across the board but our.

He said people approach him daily about moving to the area. “I firmly believe that we will have people coming here,” he said.

Vicites said focusing on projects to keep people healthy is paramount.

“We need to live more healthy lives,” Vicites said, noting commissioners established a health-and-wellness program for county employees.

He said recreation available like the Sheepskin Trail, help people stay, getting in more exercise than ever.

“We have to continue to build our recreational opportunities to give people a chance to exercise,” he said.

Dunn said he believes in a comprehensive buy local program.

“The biggest problem we face is generational poverty,” he said.

“The more education and training you have the less likely you are to live in poverty, and the more likely you are to be employed in the work force,” he said. “We need to boost education and training and we need to navigate our students towards education.”

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