New Castle News: Officials discuss state of county over breakfast

Delays in the state permitting process, improving infrastructure, corporate income tax rate reform, broadband and the prevalence of ticks were all topics that state and county officials addressed over breakfast Friday morning.

The 2 1/2-hour gathering of more than 100 government and business officials from Lawrence County took place in the McKelvey Center of Westminster College, organized and mediated by Forward Lawrence Executive Director Ben Bush.

The program featured two panels — one of state elected officials that included state Reps. Marla Brown and Aaron Bernstine and Sens. Michele Brooks and Elder Vogel. The other panel was comprised of Lawrence County Commissioners Dan Vogler and Chris Sainato and county planning Director Amy McKinney.

Bush played an interview he taped Thursday with Commissioner Dan Kennedy, who is currently on sick leave. Kennedy emphasized the county needs to help “Mom-and-Pop stores because they’re the growth of Lawrence County.”

His desire as a commissioner is to help promote the development of the Route 422 corridor in Shenango and Slippery Rock townships, he said.

Vogler and Sainato also highlighted the jobless rate being lower in the county and their recent contribution to local municipalities of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for infrastructure improvements.

One thing all four state panelists agreed upon is the state needs a speedier way to grant environmental and other state permits to prospective businesses and industries instead of making them wait for several months, thus delaying their projects to where they build elsewhere.

Bernstine pointed out Senate Bill 350 is pending in the state Legislature. That measure will provide for the administration of permits by state agencies, a tracking system for permit applications, the establishment of permit programs, third-party review of permit decision delays and annual reports, establishing the Pennsylvania Office of Transformation and Opportunity and the Economic Development Strategy Group; and providing for their powers and duties.

Brown said she is a co-sponsor of legislation with state Rep. Jim Struzzi of Indiana County to do a full investigation of the permitting process to determine “how to fix things.”

“We’re losing businesses to Ohio,” she said, noting the county was lucky to keep Steelite here. She touted the Neshannock Township supervisors for doing an “awesome job” in working to retain and grow the industry here.

Vogel said the state Department of Environmental Protection office in Pittsburgh is “the worst office in the state” for permitting, noting businesses often have to wait 120 days for permits.

“It’s a very frustrating issue,” he said.

Brooks said Pennsylvania has been working for several years on addressing the issue of ticks and tick-borne illnesses. Pennsylvania has been the leader in Lyme disease, she said.

People who encounter ticks can send them for free to the state Department of Health’s lab in East Stroudsburg for testing, and there are several illnesses borne by ticks in the state. She encouraged people to visit for instructions.

“Please have the ticks tested,” she urged.

McKinney enlighted the group about a broadband study the county undertook two years ago, and said the county has chosen to focus on one of three weak broadband areas it identified — the area of Plain Grove Township along the Interstate 79 corridor — where it hopes to strengthen broadband capabilities.

That area was chosen because the other three areas are currently being addressed by internet service providers, she said. She said the Northwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission and the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission are pulling together to pursue funding for broadband there as a regional project.

Other participants in the program were Westminster College President Dr. Kathy Richardson, Melanie Brewer, the district director for U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, and Alex Halper, senior vice president of Government Affairs of the state Chamber of Business and Industry.

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