Fiscal concerns define Westmoreland County commissioners race
Democrats held a majority on the Westmoreland County Board of Commissioners for nearly 60 years until four years ago, when the GOP swept the elections and took control.
In the May 19 primary, three Democratic candidates — incumbent Ted Kopas, South Greensburg business owner Linda Iezzi and law student Gina Cerilli — are seeking the party's two nominations in an effort to win back the majority for the party on the three-member board.
Incumbent Republicans Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney are running as a team to try to hold onto the majority they won in 2011. They are being challenged for the GOP nominations by Jason Atwood of Irwin and Ron Gazze, a dentist from Greensburg.
The top three vote-getters in the November general election will win four-year terms on the board. Westmoreland commissioners earn $76,545 annually; the chairman earns $79,369.
The new board will deal with financial problems that have mounted in the past several years.
The $319 million budget carries a $5.9 million deficit and is balanced through the use of a surplus fund that is expected to dwindle to $16.3 million at the end of 2015. Four years ago, the surplus was about $41 million.
Anderson and Courtney said their fiscal program has reduced the budget deficit, allowing credit-rating agencies to upgrade the county's bond rating, and generally improved governmental functions.
“The budget is a plan, and plans fluctuate as you go through the year,” said Anderson, a retired Marine Corps pilot who was appointed commissioner by county judges in 2008 and elected to a full term in 2011. “Traditionally, we underspend, and in the last three years, we've been about $10 million under our budget projection,” he said. “My plan is not to raise taxes and live as close to the budget as we can.”
Courtney, who is seeking his second term, said the Republicans have had to repair budget problems caused by years of Democratic leadership. He said the county will continue to lobby for more state and federal funding to pay for upgrades to the county's 911 system and other programs.
“The county is doing very, very well now. We'll continue to run the county in a cost-efficient way and continue to look at technology to improve our efficiency,” Courtney said.
Gazze, who ran for commissioner as an independent candidate in 2011, said he wants to allow the surplus to grow to about $30 million, set up a task force to examine spending cuts in three departments every year and proactively negotiate with service providers.
“We're paying for services, so we should tell them what we're willing to pay instead of them telling us what to pay. The costs are always there, but that doesn't mean we're getting what we pay for,” Gazze said.
Atwood, a political newcomer who works as a financial assistant at a car dealership, said he would eliminate duplicate services to save money.
“There is room in the budget to make cuts. There are wasteful expenses — nothing major — that we can trim here and there, and it will add up,” Atwood said.
Kopas said he would continue to push several proposals, all of which the Republican commissioners have rejected, to reduce spending through staff reductions within the commissioners' office, eliminate lobbying efforts in Harrisburg and Washington, and reverse the privatization of the human resources department.
Kopas, who was appointed by the county judges in 2010 and was elected to his first full term in 2011, said he voted against the last four budgets approved by the Republican commissioners.
Iezzi, who finished third in the Democratic commissioners' primary race four years ago, said she wants the county to grow revenue. She opposes any tax increases but said the county should push for more state and federal grants to pay for mandated programs. She supports pay raises for county employees.
“All three commissioners have to work together to make good decisions. The Republicans ran on being fiscally responsible. So far, the budget hasn't been fiscally responsible,” Iezzi said.
Cerilli, who will graduate from law school in May and worked as a public relations specialist for the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, is making her first run for public office.
She said she hasn't formed a specific plan to reduce spending or increase revenue but wants to improve efficiency in government operations.
“I want to have weekly meetings with elected row officers to find ways to work more efficiently to save money and better serve the public,” Cerilli said.
Job growth and the drug problem were two issues most candidates listed as priorities.
Anderson said he wants to improve job growth and continue efforts to reduce the county's drug addiction issues and the number of overdose deaths.
“The one hiccup we've had is the drug epidemic. It's a dark cloud that we have to do what we can to fix it,” Anderson said.
Cerilli said commissioners should work to solve the drug problem and supports formation of a specialized drug court to help curb the addiction epidemic.
“We need to get a handle on this, and commissioners need to take action. I will surround myself with experts to do that,” she said. “Time is of the essence.”
Courtney said he wants to focus efforts on retaining young workers and growing jobs.
“Economic development has got to be a critical issue. We're the oldest county in the state, and we need to provide opportunities to lower the age of our workforce,” Courtney said.
Iezzi said she wants to encourage more businesses to relocate in the county.
“I'm the only person running who is a business owner, and I create jobs for people,” Iezzi said. “It's about keeping young people here.”
Kopas said he will focus on job growth and expansion of social service programs.
“We have gotten away from service-oriented programs. There has been a dearth of leadership over the last three years and a lack of communication with the public. I would like to restore the integrity in government,” he said.
Gazze said he wants to study whether home rule would improve government operations.
“It could divide up representation from all over the county,” Gazze said. “We might be able to save money by reorganizing part of the government and reducing the number of full-time elected officials.”
Atwood said he wants to ease conflict among the county's elected officials.
“We need to work together to make the county run more efficiently,” he said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.