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Commissioner Candidates Debate in Wyoming County

Eight Candidates for Wyoming County Commissioner Square Off at Debate

 By D.C. Koviack

 All eight of the candidates—three Democrats and five Republicans—for Wyoming County Commissioner participated in a debate last Wednesday evening; the event was hosted by Shadowbrook and moderated by Procter & Gamble Public Relations Officer Alex Fried.

Close to 140 people attended the debate, more than had been planned for, and latecomers ended up standing for the two-hour event although extra chairs were brought in. Each candidate had two minutes at the start to tell the audience about themselves and outline their reasons for wishing to be a Wyoming County Commissioner.

Following that, questions submitted by audience members were chosen by Fried and asked of the candidates in turn. Eight questions, some of which grouped several similar queries together, were asked and answered.

The first candidate to give a prĂ©cis of his experience and his reasons for seeking the office was Democrat Ron Williams. He is from Lake Winola and served as commissioner before an eight-year stint as a regional representative for Gov. Ed Rendell in the county’s agriculture office. Williams said Wyoming County is in a state of transition with the advent of the gas drilling industry and said he would seek to “balance this economic boom with a fragile environment.” Williams said he would be a full-time commissioner with no other business interests; this became a recurring theme during the debate. Williams also stressed his forte in emergency preparedness and his passion for children’s issues.

The second candidate was Republican Tommy Henry, who told the audience that “being involved is nothing new to me and my family.” He said he wanted to bring his involvement up to a more active level by being a county commissioner. Henry cited his membership in the Lions Club and Kiwanis, his seat on several area bank boards of directors and mentioned his part in the initial phases of the Dietrich Theater’s renaissance. Henry said he’s also very involved with the Cancer Society and the high school. He said his business background meant he was familiar with budgeting; he promised to be shrewd and careful with the county taxpayers’ money, and like Williams pledged to be a full-time commissioner.

Richard Dixon, a Democrat, was third and said he wanted to make Wyoming County a better place to live. He mentioned his experience in community planning and zoning by being on municipal planning and zoning boards. He said he championed “responsible growth and protecting the quality of life.” Dixon noted that with the gas drilling industry, there were new land use issues cropping up and said he wanted to help guide the county through that. Dixon said his business experience would also be a plus should he be elected commissioner.

Judy Kraft Mead was the fourth person to introduce herself. A Republican and a native of Meshoppen, she now lives in Tunkhannock and owns Fitze’s Department Store. She has served three terms as county commissioner. Mead said her business background had been “invaluable” in serving in county government, adding that the county had not raised its taxes in several years and was financially stable. She said she had always been and would continue to be a full-time commissioner, should she win re-election. Mead noted that the job demanded a flexible schedule both in and out of the courthouse. “Many times I start in my office at 8 a.m., but I’m not finished until about 12 or 13 hours later after an evening meeting,” she explained. She also emphasized the importance of communication among all levels of county, municipal and regional government and quasi-governmental groups. “I am looking forward to keeping the county financially stable and to taking it into the future,” she said.

Democrat incumbent Stark Bartron was next. A native of Wyoming County, he said he was happy his children were now running his business so he could devote all his time and energy to county work. He said he found it “satisfying” to meet and talk with residents of the county and help them solve their problems. “That’s what it’s all about for me,” he concluded.

Sixth up was Michael DiStadio, who moved to Wyoming County with his parents in 1967. He said he has learned what the community needs by volunteering with a number of organizations, including Triton Hose and the Tunkhannock Ambulance. “Volunteering gets you into the community,” he explained. DiStadio said he would work full-time to serve as commissioner. He also said he would focus on serving local businesses and service organizations and seek to move the county forward by broadening the local economy and improving county services.

Connie Kintner was next to last. A Republican, she has lived in Wyoming County her whole life and has been involved with several community and charitable groups, including Tyler Hospital and the county’s Chamber of Commerce. She said she would also be a full-time commissioner. “I won’t do insurance any more,” she told the audience. “There are a lot of changes coming to the area and we need to pay attention. I would work hard to see that the county is both progressive and healthy.”

Last to introduce herself was Sandra Ritz, a Republican who has been a county auditor for over 20 years. “No [board of commissioners] has had to face the changes we are facing now in the county,” she said. Ritz told the audience that she would focus on growing the area while protecting the environment and enriching its cultural and recreational assets. She added that with her background as auditor, controlling spending would be “crucial” and one of her main goals.

With the introductions completed, the first question was presented: What would be your number one priority?

Williams said he would work to keep property taxes low. He also said that some political offices and the judicial system needed to be revamped, but was not more specific.

Henry said that, of course, his first priority was to save the county taxpayers money. He added that initially his priority would be to learn the commissioner’s job from the ground up. “I’m really eager to do that,” he said.

Dixon answered by referencing his Business Administration degree from Bloomsburg University and saying that his priority would be to plan for the gas industry’s presence in the county because it would be “dangerous” if no planning were done. He also said he would want to plan properly for the county’s expansion, so that the quality of life it offered could be maintained.

Mead said her priority would be to study surrounding counties and how they had handled the advent of the gas drilling industry and learn from their experiences. “I want to be sure this industry is safe and environmentally responsible,” she said, explaining that the county’s rich heritage had to be preserved while the county moved forward to the future. Mead said she would also prioritize keeping costs, and therefore taxes, down.

Bartron said he would keep an eye on the county’s budget and spending as his priority. He also said that he favored taxing the gas drilling industry as a logical and appropriate way to earn revenue. Bartron told the audience that hand in hand with these priorities was the over-arching priority of keeping the lines of communication between government and the citizenry open. “We have a reputation for being accessible, open and transparent, and I intend to keep that,” he said.

DiStadio admitted that there were many issues to choose a priority from, but said he would focus on safeguarding the county’s land and water. “Without it our county is nothing,” he said. DiStadio explained that he was not against gas drilling, but wanted to make sure it was done properly so the county is not left “with a mess.” He said it was important to make sure the county’s emergency responders were properly trained as well.

Kintner said she would make keeping taxes down and producing a balanced budget her priority. She said that the county budget “needs to be revised,” but gave no specifics. She also said that, of course, the gas drilling industry was a priority and that she “would like to think” that the current drilling is more environmentally friendly than it has been in the past and would be a boon to the county.

Ritz answered the question by saying that she would prioritize attention to the gas drilling industry. Like Mead, Ritz said Wyoming County must learn from its neighbors, and added that at this point she favored taxing the drilling industry. Ritz did say her second priority was to keep the county financially sound by working with the budget and negotiating with the unions of county workers for contracts that would satisfy both parties.

Question two was: What do you see your role with regard to the gas drilling industry, if you were elected commissioner?

Henry answered first this time and said he would work to keep the land and the water safe. He said he was not sure about taxing the industry, though he thought some nature of tax would be appropriate.

Dixon said he would work on enforcing the regulations so gas pipelines, wells and other infrastructure are handled correctly. He also said he would recognize that demand on human services would be higher with an increase in population, and added that he has experience working with both union and non-union shops.

Mead answered the question by reminding the audience that many things connected to the gas drilling are not under county control, but rather under the aegis of regional or state entities. She said her role would be to keep the lines of communication open with those agencies who do have oversight to be sure everything is done right. She added that she knew the drilling industry had and would continue to bring residual benefits to the county, which would help the economy.

Bartron answered by stating plainly that the gas drilling industry needed to be taxed and said he would work toward this. “That way some money comes back to the county so we can take care of county resources,” he said, adding that in his experience, gas drilling companies are not hard to work with. He mentioned Emily Krafjack as a “county advocate,” who has done much work on safety issues around the drilling industry, and said he would want to continue to work with her.

DiStadio said that as long as the gas drilling is done properly, everything could be “harmonious.” He said drilling will bring revenue to the county. He added that emergency services needed training to be up to speed on gas drilling related emergencies.

Kintner answered by saying that “Harrisburg doesn’t have a clue...it’s sad.” She said her role as commissioner would be to “holler the loudest,” so she would get attention in Harrisburg for the county. She also said that she thought the county’s conservation district was great and should be more involved in the drilling industry. She added that she did not know what kind of tax for the industry would be the best, but said she felt some kind of tax was warranted.

Ritz said as a commissioner she would be very careful to protect the county’s water resources. “Water is our life,” she said. She said she favored taxing the industry because taxes were how governments generated money. She intimated that a tax on the drilling industry would likely mean that property taxes could be held to their present level.

Williams answered by also saying he favored taxing the gas drillers and made reference to Gov. Tom Corbett’s recent statement calling northeastern Pennsylvania “the next Texas.” “I hope that’s true,” Williams said, “because Texas has no property tax and no person tax.” He said he’d like to see local agencies have more oversight of the industry and concluded by saying that he felt gas companies should take care of the counties they’re in.

The third question concerned the County Chamber of Commerce. It has been designated as the economic developer for the county, but receives no county funding. The question was: Would you as commissioner favor budgeting county money to support the Chamber?

Dixon answered first, saying that the Chamber did a great job and he felt they should be supported. He then expressed some concern about mixing government and business and concluded by saying he was not familiar enough with the county’s finances to know if they could support the Chamber with county money.

Mead said that the Chamber was originally funded by a grant, which has run out. She said the Chamber should furnish the commissioners with a plan and a budget and she, as commissioner, would see if county money could be found to help support the Chamber, which relies now on fundraisers and contributions.

Bartron said he would favor seeing if money for the Chamber could be secured from the Northern Tier Regional Planning & Development Commission.

DiStadio said although he felt the county’s economic growth should continue, he would try to find funding for the Chamber from somewhere besides the county’s general fund.

Kintner said that since she is part of the Chamber, she is biased. She said that she knew how hard Maureen Dispenza, the Chamber’s Director, works. “I’ll find money for the Chamber, because I know how hard they work and how they spend every penny correctly,” Kintner said.

Ritz said that, of course, the Chamber should be funded. “Budgets are flexible,” she reminded the audience, adding that the Chamber was very worthy of county support. “Without business we don’t have a community,” she said.

Williams seemed to take off from Bartron’s idea, noting that in his opinion, the county has not received much in return for the money it pays to Northern Tier every year for its membership. “We should dissolve that relationship and then give the money to the Chamber,” he said. “Northern Tier doesn’t do anything for us.”

Henry answered that he had been in the Chamber from its inception. He echoed Kintner that the Chamber works very hard on behalf of the county and said he would do what he could to get them funding.

The fourth question asked if the candidates felt the county needed a new, larger county jail.

Mead said she would want to see what would happen with regard to inmate population levels over the next couple of years. She said that the county needed to support and expand innovative programs, which kept non-violent criminals out of jail, like the Drug Treatment Court. “It should not be a burden to the taxpayers,” she said.

Bartron agreed with Mead, adding that the population of the prison had actually been declining over the past couple of months. He admitted that the county would probably need to look at building a new jail at some point in the future, adding that the property adjacent to the county’s 911 building might be suitable. However, he said at the moment the jail was adequate and was even able to accept boarding prisoners who paid the county to be housed at the Stark Street facility.

DiStadio said that no, he did not feel a new jail was needed now. “It needs a new heating system,” he said. “We should do that and upgrade what we have.” He said he was also in favor of initiatives like the Drug Treatment Court, which would keep the prison population down.

Kintner said that she’d checked into it and it would cost $20 million for a new jail. She said there was no need for that now and that what the county had could be updated and maintained. She also said she favored programs like the Drug Treatment Court.

Ritz told the audience that her brother is a sergeant at the county jail so she had good information about it. She said the current jail is less than 25 years old and that at this point, a new jail was not warranted. “Certainly look into getting a new HVAC system, and if we get overcrowded we can board out just like other counties, when we aren’t crowded, board their prisoners here,” she said.

Williams began his answer by saying his research showed a new jail would likely cost twice what Kintner had cited: “thirty or forty million,” he claimed. He said no new jail was needed now, since community-based corrections programs like the Drug Treatment Court and the Woodpile were succeeding in treating and rehabilitating offenders, not jailing them.

Henry agreed that he felt with the help of initiatives like Drug Treatment Court, the current jail was sufficient and said a new jail was not something he favored.

Dixon agreed with those who said they did not favor building a new jail at present, adding that if crime went up significantly because of new industry in the region, another look at the possibility might be warranted.

The fifth question asked the candidates to name the biggest infrastructure needs of the county in the next four years.

Bartron was first to answer. He said the county’s infrastructure was actually in good shape with, of course, the exception of the roads, which suffer from the gas industry’s truck traffic. However, he said, the gas companies were responsible for repairing those. He added that the county, while it owns bridges, owns no roads in the county. They are either state or municipal roadways. He said that some storm water management could be improved in certain areas, but saw no other large projects in the immediate future.

DiStadio agreed, saying that the infrastructure was good right now. He said he’d focus on maintaining what the county had and also on helping people still trying to recover from the flooding of 2006.

Kintner said the roads could be improved, but echoed the fact that they aren’t within the county’s purview. She said a corporate center or light industrial region should be designated within the county so that pristine areas can stay that way.

Ritz returned to the roadway theme, noting that the county should continue to maintain its bridges and to return the state liquid fuels monies to the municipalities so they could use them as they saw fit for municipal road maintenance.

Williams said he was not sure about infrastructure needs, but felt that the Luzerne County Home Rule Initiative, which takes effect this January, might necessitate a change in areas where Luzerne and Wyoming Counties have a joinder. Specifically, he said the MH/MR services, the aging services and the transportation services might need an overhaul next year.

Henry said that storm water management was a priority, as well as bridge maintenance.

Dixon said he felt that the county’s human services would need to be expanded and upgraded because of the county’s growing population.

Mead said that she felt maintaining the bridges and continuing to turn over liquid fuels money would enable municipalities to maintain their infrastructure. She noted that Wyoming County is one of two counties in the state, which parts with its liquid fuels money from the state, and gives it to the boroughs and townships.

Question seven asked where the candidates thought expenses could be cut in the County Budget.

DiStadio said he felt that many departments had unnecessary spending and that the budget needed to be looked at line by line, department by department.

Kintner agreed, saying that “fresh eyes” needed to scrutinize each line item for savings.

Ritz agreed that, of course, department budgets needed to be reviewed, but added that from her time as a county auditor, “the experienced eye” knew that unfunded mandates from the state gave the county little choice in some line items. “If the state says we have to do it, we have to, and we have to find the money,” she explained. She reiterated that while a line by line check of department budgets was a good idea, the county is in sound financial shape.

Williams’s answer was simple: cut expenses. He said he was sure there was already very little fat in the county budget and said needed services could not be cut. He said the county should bring in new revenue rather than cutting what it has.

Henry agreed that he would not want to cut services. He said that Kintner’s “fresh eyes” made a good point and said he would like the opportunity to work on the budget to be sure it was as efficient as it could be.

Dixon led off by saying that many people are involved in crafting the budget. He said he would consult with them to find places where expenses could be cut.

Mead answered by plainly telling the audience that a few people do a lot of work. “There’s not much place to cut,” she said. She also pointed out how difficult it was to craft a budget when some departments, like Children & Youth, were largely funded by the state. “We never know how much the funding or the grant will be cut, so that makes it hard to figure how those departments work into the overall budget.”

Bartron answered by referring to the county administrator, who in large part is responsible for the line by line scrutiny of the budget and its overall completeness. “Billy Gaylord is tight,” Bartron said. “The budget is tight, too. I would not cut services,” he said, but added that perhaps union negotiations this year could be efficiently handled. He agreed that new revenue sources needed to be tapped.

Question seven was one that had garnered both media and community attention in recent weeks, that of taxing churches and church buildings in the county.

Kintner said she didn’t know if churches should be taxed or not. She said she hadn’t thought about the issue, adding that she’d heard some talk about it but really didn’t know.

Ritz noted that, according to state guidelines, buildings whose primary use is not for worship should be taxed. She added that if one church hall is taxed, they all should be for the tax to be fair.

Williams answered by saying that if the building is relieving the county of housing events such as AA meetings, he felt it should not be taxed, even if its primary function was not worship.

Henry said that if the churches and church buildings, regardless of function, could not be taxed, he wouldn’t tax them. However, he said, if the state guidelines say non-worship buildings have to be taxed, that’s what the county has to do.

Dixon reiterated that the county had to do as the law demands, but added that the county should be open and straightforward about what it’s taxing and why.

Mead pointed out that it was a Wyoming County tradition of long standing that in addition to not taxing church buildings used for worship, rectories and parsonages were also exempt from tax. “That’s a county policy. We don’t have to do it. I’m not sure people appreciate that,” she said. She added that other buildings on church property not primarily used for worship should be taxed.

Bartron raised a doubt that there was a state mandate regarding the issue but said all non-worship buildings should be taxed. “It may not be popular, but it’s fair.”

DiStadio invoked the separation of church and state, but said that if a church building not used for worship brought in revenue because fund raisers, etc. were held there, that building should be taxed.

The last question of the evening concerned the number of hours each candidate intended to spend working as a county commissioner.

Ritz was first to answer. She said that as auditor she got in at 8:10 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m. and saw the position of commissioner as deserving of the same devotion, at least.

Williams said he would be available to Wyoming County residents 24/7 and would work seven and a half hours a day in the courthouse, five days a week.

Henry said he felt commissioner was a full-time job. “The hours of 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. are just right for me,” he said smiling.

Dixon admitted that it was hard for him to say. “I’d like to work full-time,” he said, adding that he has flexible hours where he works. He repeated that he thought he had what the county needs in these challenging times.

Mead answered by saying “8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. isn’t going to cut it.” She explained that the job of commissioner involved meetings outside the courthouse both during the day and in the evenings. She said it also involved a great deal of travel to various agencies and committees both within the county and in the region. She said that she was always available, even if on the road, and intended to keep it that way.

Bartron agreed 100 percent with Mead, adding that the job was a full-time commitment. He stressed that he, too, would be available 24/7 to constituents.

DiStadio replied that he would make a "full-time commitment" to the job of commissioner, available 24/7 and willing to be in the courthouse or out at evening meetings as needed. "Whatever it takes," he said.

Kintner answered by saying she thrives on work and that she’s used to multi-tasking and long hours. “It would be an honor and a privilege,” to work as county commissioner, she said.

 

 

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