Laughter, Tears, Accolades, and Frustration Merge at Bradford Commissioners’ Meeting
By Rick Hiduk
The Aug. 11 meeting of the Bradford County Commissioners was, by most accounts, a light-hearted assemblage of civic leaders and the public. The board presented a plaque to a long-time educator and coach and flowers to their outgoing chief clerk. But their mandate to approve a property tax assessment on a housing complex that was supposed to net the county, North Towanda Township, and the Towanda School District a much bigger chunk of change did not sit well with the commissioners.
Although the measure passed by a two-to-one vote, lone dissenter Doug McLinko wasn’t the only commissioner to express his dissatisfaction with Trehab and other organizations that, according to McLinko, come into the county with a plan that promises a significant contribution to the local tax base but later uses legal loopholes to reduce the amount of taxes owed.
“The county is forced to do this,” McLinko said of the commissioners’ vote. “We’d be sued if we didn’t do it, and I am furious about this.” He remarked that Trehab officials should have and could have been “more upfront and honest” with their presentation.
“They had indicated that they were going to pay full taxes,” commissioner Mark Smith agreed. “But the county has to follow the law. We do this begrudgingly.”
“This insanity has got to stop. They need to pay their fair share of taxes,” said McLinko, who suggested that, when any organization approaches the county with an $8-million project, its representatives should have their figures and finances in order. In the case of Trehab, he added, most of the inhabitants of Oak Ridge townhouse complex require additional services and become a further burden rather than an asset to the county.
In response to the uproar, Trehab executive director Dennis Phelps explained afterward that, while the action was regrettable, the organization had no choice but to approach the court of common pleas for a reassessment that would base the tax levy on the operating costs of the Oak Ridge townhouse rather than its property value.
He noted that the commissioners were involved in the process of developing a tax payment plan for the project that was to be phased in and that the manner by which low- to moderate-income housing is developed and funded was implemented by the state and has been the same for about 20 years. The resulting reassessment was by no means unprecedented, Phelps added, and he was dismayed by the reaction of the commissioners.
The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) helps organizations like Trehab secure funds to provide affordable housing for older adults, people with limited incomes, and those with special needs. According to Phelps, 70 percent of the financing generally comes from private investors, with the remainder realized primarily from HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) grants.
“Without it, there wouldn‘t be any affordable housing in the country, because it costs too much to develop them,” Phelps remarked.
HUD and PHFA also influence the rates for rent for families entering public housing and, during a recessed economy, there is little if any increase in those figures. “Because of that, the operating budget is limited,” Phelps related, adding, “PHFA controls the whole process of assessing the tax credit.” He asserted that Trehab tried to “the best of our ability” to keep paying the taxes as they were levied by the terms of the original agreement, but reality won out.
“The small budget for operating that little property made it difficult to keep up with taxes,” Phelps explained. “If we were to have continued to run in a deficit situation, the state would have stepped in and forced it.”
In other county business, the commissioners accepted a $35,690 donation from Canonsburg-based gas company EOG to upgrade roads at Mt. Pisgah County Park. Smith explained that the road to the park has been in poor condition for a while, and the county solicited the donation from EOG, which, McLinko noted, leases approximately 1,000 acres of county property. Smith indicated that the relationship between the county and the gas company has been strong, and the commissioners were grateful for the contribution, which should allow Vestal Asphalt to complete the work there by the end of the summer.
In a swift move that required further explanation, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the by-laws of the Bradford County Natural Gas Task Force and to appoint Bradford County Conservation District manager Mike Lovegreen as its chairman. The task force is comprised of leaders from the agricultural and banking sectors of the county, as well as municipal, school district, law enforcement, and emergency response unit representatives. In the past, the commissioners have played a greater role in the task force, having fostered its creation several years ago after returning from a tour of communities in Texas impacted by natural gas drilling.
The changes, Smith related, would compel the group to gather more information and make more decisions without the influence of the commissioners who will hereafter step in only as needed. “We may attend meetings, but we are not going to run it,” Smith explained. “We want it to be an independently operating entity.”
“Our role as commissioners has changed,” McLinko added in reference to the myriad of industry-related issues faced by the board compared to three years ago. “We have to be proactive in a whole different manner.” He hopes that the revamped natural gas task force can bring more attention to the county on a statewide level.
“We have a prime opportunity to bring businesses in, and the state doesn’t know a lot about us,” McLinko remarked.
Commissioner John Sullivan had the honor of presenting a plaque to Jim Davis, who taught chemistry and coached sports for 42 years in the Northeast Bradford and Athens school districts. Sullivan noted that Davis was as revered as a teacher as he was for his support of athletics in the schools at which he worked. Davis had more than 730 career wins, which, Sullivan remarked, places him in the top ten of Pennsylvania’s most successful coaches.
Joining Davis at the commissioners’ meeting were current NE Bradford softball coach Gary Hennip, who had Davis as a teacher and coach before coaching basketball alongside him for awhile; Athens High School assistant principal Bill Clark, who worked with Davis for 11 years; and Nate Dewing, who played basketball under Davis at NE Bradford in 1992.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. You’re only as good as your players,” Davis said of his supporters, who shared humorous stories about how their school and teaching careers overlapped Davis’s.
There were more laughs and some tears of joy as Smith and his fellow commissioners presented retiring chief county clerk Gayle Kershner with a vase full of red roses, as it was the last commissioners’ meeting in which she was slated to participate.
The next meeting of the Bradford County Commissioners is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 25.