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Candidates forum focuses on ways to grow in Westmoreland

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 10:06 a.m.

Republican candidates for Westmoreland County commissioner challenged on Thursday the Democratic-controlled board for what they call failed economic and anti-business policies.

The Democrats, though, accused Republicans of making empty promises while touting fiscal responsibility and promoting economic growth connected with the burgeoning Marcellus shale industry.

All five candidates for county commissioner spoke last night during a forum sponsored by Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce at Westmoreland County Community College. The forum was the first major campaign event leading up to the Nov. 8 general election.

Republicans Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney called for a partisan change on the board, which has been run by Democrats since the late 1950s.

"I want to discuss a change of direction. We must do a better job for the taxpayers of Westmoreland County," Anderson said.

He criticized Democratic Commissioner Ted Kopas and outgoing Commissioner Tom Balya, who is not seeking re-election, for failing to control a growing budget deficit that hit $11 million this year. Anderson also blasted the Democrats for passing a labor-stabilization agreement that outlaws strikes and requires contractors to hire qualified workers.

Anderson said the deal hinders small businesses and favors union shops.

"We will immediately reverse that policy and tell employers Westmoreland County is open for business," Anderson said.

Anderson and Courtney, a Greensburg businessman, are running a joint campaign. Throughout his 10-minute speech, Anderson said he needed a second GOP vote to accomplish his goals of trimming the budget. Anderson was appointed by the county judges in late 2008.

Courtney used similar language in talking about reducing county spending. Her also pledged to enact a new budgeting system that would limit expenses to revenues.

"We have to end big-dollar, no-bid contracts that cost taxpayers too much and reward campaign donors," Courtney said, also calling for term limits for appointees to county boards and authorities.

Kopas, appointed commissioner last year, touted his record in office as well as the accomplishments of the Democrat-controlled board over the last decade. Prior to his appointment, Kopas worked for eight years as Balya's chief of staff.

Lucia has been Mt. Pleasant mayor since 1986.

Kopas and Lucia said they oppose a property-tax reassessment and favor a continuation of economic policies that have enabled the county to accrue a $35 million surplus.

"I have very little reason to do that," Kopas said of a potential reassessment that would update and correct Westmoreland County's outdated system. " I don't want to spend $10 million to get values that will be outdated the very next day."

He called on state legislative action to change the property-tax system.

Kopas also said he supports providing more support for the Marcellus shale industry, which has been responsible for 13 new companies locating in Westmoreland County.

"We have to have a continued means to accommodate this kind of massive growth," Kopas said, citing support for the county's existing economic-development efforts.

Lucia called for continued enhancements of the county's 911 emergency-management system, cited his record in Mt. Pleasant as never having voted for a tax increase and praised the county's current economic situation.

"The county surplus should enable us to continue without tax increases for the next several years and perhaps longer," Lucia said.

Independent Ron Gazze, a Greensburg dentist, called on voters to strip both parties of a majority. Gazze suggested partisan politics on the board of commissioners has paralyzed efforts at reform.

"It's not about power against power. Bad things happen when you have power on one side," Gazze said. "Think of a change -- one Democrat, one Republican and one Independent. There would be no power."

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