Q&A: Westmoreland GOP commissioner candidates address issues
Seven Republicans are seeking two nominations this month to run this fall for Westmoreland County commissioner.
Democratic incumbents Gina Cerilli and Ted Kopas are unopposed this spring.
Incumbent Republican Charles Anderson announced earlier this year he is not running for a third-full term in office and will retire a year’s end.
Republicans running in the May 21 primary are: Anderson’s chief of staff Sean Kertes; biochemist Doug Chew; retired business executive John Ventre; insurance program director Heather Cordial; computer resources professional Paul Kosko; former chief deputy sheriff Patricia Fritz; and dentist Ron Gazze.
Each Republican candidate was asked to respond to three questions about their platforms. Here are their answers:
Q: Westmoreland County has for the last two decades adopted budgets where spending outpaced revenues and had to be balanced using surplus funds. How would you balance future budgets?
Doug Chew: “The current board of commissioners has spent nearly all of our surplus funds and racked up some of the highest deficits in the last 20 years (over $18 million last year!). They refinanced our existing debt and borrowed more money. The 2020 draft budget has a 4-mill property tax increase in it. We cannot balance the budget on the backs of the county staff through layoffs; most of the staff with whom I’ve spoken are not getting rich off of their county job. No, we need to look at how we do business. I will bid out as much county business as possible. … I will seek vendors from within our county first, which keeps the money here to benefit our neighbors and cities.”
Heather Cordial: “There are two sides to this question, the first is spending. I believe we need to start bidding out contracts to ensure the lowest possible cost to taxpayers as well as seek strategic grants to alleviate certain operational costs, while also looking to eliminate waste whenever possible within the county. On the revenue side, I believe we need to do more to attract businesses to our area as well as maintain existing ones. We can achieve this by investing in more work-force training, which will help bridge the gap between schools and employers. I also believe we need to be more vocal in our support of important infrastructure projects that will help our communities grow by expanding our tax base. Finally I believe we should become more aggressive in recruiting businesses to locate here.”
Patricia Fritz: “A balanced budget is a must for any organization/company. Spending cannot exceed the revenue. In Westmoreland County, the budget is prepared and adopted in September for the following year based on revenue and expenditures from the previous year. Waste needs to be minimized and we should spend the monies where it is most needed. Political favors cannot be condoned as the bidding process should be utilized in order to save money. I think new legislation should be introduced, by creating a charge for convicted drug offenders, (budget offset fee) which could help offset any unseen expenditures.”
Ron Gazze: “The current budget is about $350 million and we been borrowing and average $5-7 million a year. This is a shortfall of approximately 1.5 percent. It is costing the county about $1,000 per resident a year, meaning we need $30 per resident. Add another $30 and we can start building the reserve back up about $6 million a year. This would be my goal. I am against an across the board cut, because some areas are managed well and some are not. Make the reserve fund unavailable for balancing budget. … Restrict spending to income. Reach out to individuals and organizations for donations to boost reserve (that cannot be used for balancing budget). Possible small energy tax. County growth would add necessary funds to balance budget.”
Sean Kertes: “If elected, I would work to find creative ways to produce revenue and reduce costs. I would focus on adding revenue-generating amenities to the county parks, reviewing the county’s assets and their economic impact in order to see what makes sense fiscally for the county, and either enhance or sell these assets. In addition, by continuing to combat the drug epidemic, we’re not only saving lives but also able to cut costs and recidivism.”
Paul Kosko: “First of all, I hate taxes. Taxes have not been raised since 2003 and I know there have been many demands on the county and its communities to provide state and federal programs without the resources to pay for them. I would look at zero based budgeting in the future and examine all programs in the county. We have to maintain low taxes for all, so we can attract companies, their employees, and families to our area. I do not support property re-evaluations. … Taxpayers pay for the assessment. Other areas to raise money would be to look at natural gas production. Most gas in Westmoreland County is pumped out and shipped across the state and even into Europe. I strongly support the ability of people to be able to afford to live in their homes, and government should not be a burden on its residents. Government serves the people, not the other way around.”
John Ventre: “Analyze every contract and department budget comparing it to 2015 spending and an explanation why it is higher than 2 percent per year, freeze hiring, sell the Manor and prison if analysis shows this to be viable, bid every contract and stop overpriced project labor spending. Downsizing the commissioners (office) from three to one staffer saves $200,000. Advertise in Republican counties in New York and New Jersey to attract employers and retirees to increase revenue. Pitch our (former) Sony facility to companies that manufacture abroad.”
Q: Westmoreland County had one of the largest population losses in the state over the last decade. What would you do to reverse this trend?
Chew: In a survey, two things have a big effect on where folks want to live: 1) the overall cost of housing (28 percent, the most selected) and 2) availability of jobs (21 percent). Housing costs includes taxes; we need to keep those low. As a true fiscal conservative, I will be a watchdog for us and will eliminate wasteful spending. Additionally, I’ve known many in Westmoreland’s legislative delegation for years, and I will serve as the county’s advocate, asking them to more fully fund the mandates that we receive. As faculty at UPITT, I worked with many that patented inventions and formed companies. I worked closely with a group in vascular surgery who formed a company around improving vein grafts. These companies need real estate, low taxes, semi-skilled labor, and proximity to academic centers. Some software and IT start-ups only need robust internet bandwidth and could otherwise set up shop any place. We have all of those things in our county. I would work with my contacts to encourage development in Westmoreland and to encourage it throughout the county, not just along Route 30. We don’t need a multi-million dollar plan to understand that folks go to where the jobs are.”
Cordial: “I believe we have to keep our graduates here, and we can accomplish this, by again, investing in more workforce training programs to ensure that there are opportunities for young people to stay here after they finish school. I also believe that we don’t do a good enough job of promoting Westmoreland County. We are a county that’s close to Pittsburgh with many assets. We have a bustling airport, a renowned community hospital, many recreational destinations like the Laurel Highlands, and an active entertainment community that features the Palace Theatre, Geyer Theatre, Lamp Theatre, and the Apple Hill Playhouse.”
Fritz: “We need to specialize in the information technology industry so our county can have modern day technology while creating more jobs not just for our youth, but our entire community at large. Our young people are leaving as they go off to college and then they cannot find a good job in Westmoreland County. Here in Westmoreland County, I will work with my colleagues, to make it appealing for new companies and industry to come into our community in anyway I can as a team player. Innovation of our own great talent and resources is key to growth, coupled with a firm thumb on information technology.”
Gazze: “The answer is job creation. We must bring jobs to keep younger people and families in our county. We have to be aggressive in attracting business to our county. There are seven International Trade Zones in Pennsylvania. We need to be the eighth. These enable you go to foreign consulates in New York and deal with foreign businesses looking to build in America. These would be real jobs. Our county has the necessary ingredients for international trade. A growing airport, colleges, and a vo-tech for training. A second way would be promoting the hemp industry. We should have a country wide search for investor in building the hemp processing plant in Westmoreland County. It would be the only one in eastern USA. Our farmers would get four fold increases in revenue.”
Kertes: “This issue is one of the main reasons I decided to run for county commissioner. In order to give younger people a reason to stay and raise families here in Westmoreland County, we must align our workforce by working with local high schools and colleges to educate our students about the career options that are in demand in our area. Though a four-year college degree is something to be proud of, so is an education from a trade school. We must teach our youth that there are alternatives to a college education. If elected, I will work with local community leaders, organizations, and schools in order to align our workforce. In addition, I will focus on making our county a more sustainable one. Even if we provide good paying jobs, no one will want to live here if it’s not sustainable.”
Kosko: “People can’t live in Westmoreland County if they don’t have jobs to support their families. This has been a problem for many years. I want to focus on closely working with the industrial development agencies in assisting them as a commissioner to attract manufacturing and industries to our area. In Westmoreland County we have great educational institutions, recreational areas, affordable housing, and many things to do, which I believe can attract companies to call our area home. I will be focused on the federal infrastructure monies next year as the Congress writes their spending packages. I believe as the county and its communities modernize they will create jobs and employment opportunities for years to come.”
Ventre: “Pew Research shows that 500,000 New York and New Jersey residents are looking to move due to high cost of living. We need to advertise in Republican voting counties and declare Westmoreland a sanctuary county for the unborn so conservatives want to come here. Emphasize pro-God-gun-life and low cost of living and low crime. We have 435 abortions and 160 overdoses. Tax and close abortion clinics and create a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of heroin dealers. We can save some lives. Educate guidance counselors on local job openings and that college is not always the right choice.
Q: What one other issue is your top priority for Westmoreland County over the next four years and how should it be addressed?
Chew: “The drug and opioid crisis is the No. 1 issue in Westmoreland. Too many families have suffered due to this epidemic. 2019 is looking to be a year where the number of overdoses will not rise over previous years, but we must remember that overdoses are only part of the problem. Fewer folks overdosing and dying doesn’t mean that the drug problem is going away. I will push for programs that work to stop the overdose; we will save lives by delivering treatment faster. To get drugs off of the streets, I will work with the judges, the district attorney, and the sheriff to implement a reward for turning in drug dealers as provided in the County Code. The district attorney’s office seizes assets from drug dealers, and those assets are how I would fund this. It would be a budget neutral proposal. I am so serious about eliminating this that I plan to donate 60 percent of my salary back to the county to fund the drug court and these programs to put drug dealers in jail.”
Cordial: “I believe the drug epidemic has taken years to get to this point and it’s going to take a concerted, aggressive, and multi-prong approach to fix it. On the law enforcement side I would like to assist with providing law enforcement with the resources they need to catch dealers. On the treatment side I would also like to foster and strengthen cooperation among county, state, and federal agencies to ensure we’re helping battle addiction. I believe there is a final piece that often goes overlooked and that’s the educational component. I believe those with platforms should be talking about ways to prevent addiction in our community in order to create more awareness.”
Fritz: “We need to address the huge drug opioid epidemic as it needs to start with education at an early age, the training within the home and reiterated at school, church and within our communities. We need to have programs to support our entire community, because every family has been affected by this terrible crisis in our county. We must utilize the information technology industry by making the community aware of all the programs that are available. Help lines, functions, neighborhood awareness, rallies, collectively working to combat this devastating destruction within our great Westmoreland County.”
Gazze: “Westmoreland County Pot Hole Hot Line 724-Pot-Hole, developing. A firemen and women program in all school systems of Westmoreland County. This would include elementary school interdiction, middle school clubs and free summer camps, and paid WCCC tuition (one semester free for each high school year of participation in fire program). Possible expansion of local police departments to cover (non)policed township and boroughs at a cost one-third of what the state is asking. We would create coverage zones and add new police jobs to local departments, add cars, insurance costs and fuel cost.”
Kertes: “My other top priority is making sure our senior population is properly taken care of. In addition to a declining population, we also have an aging population. By the year 2020, our average age will be 51. As the Baby Boomer population continues to age, we must find ways to provide our seniors access to resources that will allow them to thrive, including, but not limited to, improving public transportation for our senior population.”
Kosko: “I will focus on infrastructure and attracting more manufacturing and industry to Westmoreland County and southwestern Pennsylvania. I will work with our state and federal representatives on bringing in state and federal monies to accomplish this. Westmoreland and Allegheny counties have to work to connect our existing transportation systems, as is found in other metropolitan cities, like Washington, Boston, Chicago, and New York, with modern systems such a Light Rail/Maglev. This has been discussed for many years and now the timing is right to focus on infrastructure.”
Ventre: “Westmoreland has a reputation for ‘bought and paid for friends and family’ politics. I support an audit of the Municipal Authority’s 39 percent rate increase. Commissioners and human resources need to create an appearance of impropriety policy not to accept donations from authority board members or current large contract holders, limit donations to $500 and not hire relatives of row office and above elected officials.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .