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Business leaders learn 'state of county'

Updated: May 17, 2023

[Originally published in the Huntingdon Daily News, Feb. 16th, 2023]

Members of the business community learned about issues county commissioners have addressed in the past year and issues they hope to tackle at the yearly State of the County breakfast held at the Huntingdon Country Club Wednesday morning.

Hosted by the Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce, the event allowed the Huntingdon County Commissioners to elaborate further on accomplishments and discuss future goals.

Diana McClure of Keller Engineers, chair of the government affairs committee for the chamber, asked questions that were submitted in advance.

She first asked commissioner and chair Mark Sather was the number one line item on the current budget that will impact the business community in Huntingdon County.

“Because of grant awards in 2022, especially with infrastructure and with the $20 million grant award for broadband internet, we could work on these projects,” he said. “But, we couldn’t do that without the help of partnerships and affiliations with other organizations, like (Huntingdon County Business and Industry) HCBI, as one example.”

“We also hope to address hard-to-reach areas in the county with things like repeaters to get broadband in as many homes as possible.” -- Commissioner Jeff Thomas.

As far as general funding, the budget grew by 8% from 2021-22; however, the budget only grew by around 2% from 2022-23, and in both years, commissioners passed a balanced budget with no tax increases.

“We have to give a shout-out to our staff and county departments for running efficiently,” said Sather, noting they work hard to keep their budgets in line. Commissioner Scott Walls was asked what the county did with the $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds they received.

“A big component of the funding went to broadband,” he said. “Additionally, we recently gave $450,000 to our emergency services in the county. We’re also looking for improvements at the courthouse and another building. We also have some additional funds leftover where we can review infrastructure projects.”

Commissioner Jeff Thomas then went into further details about the $22 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for broadband expansion in the county as well as other neighboring counties.

The county worked with Alleghenies Broadband Inc. to apply and learned they were awarded these funds in 2022.

“We were awarded $22 million out of the $277 million that was available,” he said, noting that while other counties in the immediate region will receive a portion of this funding, the county took the lead by applying for this grant and will receive $8 million in funding. Thomas said this funding would help construct nine new towers in the county and outfit nine current towers for broadband service from Upward Broadband.

“We also hope to address hard-to-reach areas in the county with things like repeaters to get broadband in as many homes as possible,” he said.

McClure also asked if the county would form a trail authority, as has been formed in other counties in the region and state.

“In 2017, we established an active transportation authority,” said Sather. “It went dormant at the beginning of the pandemic; however, it’s been revitalized, and it has 13 people on it. They are currently in the process of forming an active transportation plan, which includes trails like the 911 Memorial Trail. The county was awarded $25,000 to do this, and the county is using $5,000 (from the planning and development department budget) to do it.”

Huntingdon County Commissioner and chair Mark Sather, standing, right, spoke while commissioners Scott Walls, left, and Jeff Thomas, center, looked on, at the annual State of the County breakfast held at the Huntingdon Country Club.

Jeff Thomas addressed how federal legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act will benefit the county.

“Around 63 million of money from the infrastructure bill was awarded to the Rural Planning Organization of which the county is a part,” he said. “Right now, we’re doing outreach to municipalities to work to get projects they want on the books. We were also to promote some county projects that were previously delayed. However, despite how much we got, what we can do with this money is reduced to what we could do four years ago, thanks to inflation.”

Thomas also wants authorities to see if they can apply for funding for water and sewer projects through the infrastructure projects. Scott Walls addressed what the commissioners believe is the most pressing issue for Huntingdon County.

“I would say right now, the inmate overflow at the county jail,” he said. “Right now, we average about 90 inmates in our system, but we send many of them out to Mifflin and Centre counties. Our jail was originally built in the 1970s to hold 24 inmates. It was then renovated to hold twice as many.”

While it’s a pressing issue, Walls added there’s a lot to consider before they would even think of building a new jail.

“For example, if we build a bigger jail, do you do it to fit the current population, or do you build it bigger,” he asked. “Also, you have to consider whether we’re going to find enough people to work at the jail.”

Thomas, while he is a proponent of building a new jail, understands the considerable costs involved, as previous numbers presented to the county through a study a few years ago said the cost of a new jail would be around $24 million.

“I would imagine that cost would be twice as much now,” he said.

Thomas also reiterated the concerns that Walls had about staffing a new jail facility.

However, Thomas said there are other issues that need to be addressed, like mental health issues, where inmates could potentially receive treatment, if needed, in lieu of jail time.

“We need better treatment for inmates, but we also need better treatment for everyone,” he said.

Walls addressed general labor force issues at the county level, something that’s also being felt across a variety of industries.

“It seems as if the workforce is depleted, but the wages have skyrocketed,” said Walls.

“We are in a place where we could offer raises to our employees, but we also have to watch our revenues. We see these issues in Children and Youth, the sheriff’s department, the jail, and across the board.” As part of that question, he also addressed ways the county could implement working from home as an option.

“There are some ways that can be done, but on the whole, the county is a service-oriented role where it’s more beneficial for people to be in person,” he said.

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