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With State Budget Passed, County Commissioners Can Focus On Issues At Annual Meeting

Last year, when the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania held its annual conference, the focus was on the budget stalemate that, at the time, was less than two months into what turned into a nine-month deadlock.

“Who would have ever thought it would go that long,” said Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk. “The angst there this year will be nowhere near what it was last year.”

When commissioners meet in Carbon County, they’ll still have to deal with some lingering effects of the previous year’s stalemate, which forced many counties to dip into reserves or take out loans to meet payroll. And they'll also be able to focus on more issues, such as the ongoing struggle to pay for social services. 

“Human services funding was cut about six years ago, so counties are still in drastic need of funding for human services,” said commissioners association Spokesperson Ken Kroski. “Things such as nursing homes, things that effect mental health, children and youth, aging, substance abuse, intellectual disabilities.  Things that are critical to how we live our lives on a daily basis.”

The annual meeting helps the association set its lobbying agenda for the year, and according to Vatavuk it also allows county leaders to network and discus best practices on a variety of issues. Vatavuk serves on the energy, environment and land use committee, which has several water-related issues on its agenda.

“If you look across the country, water is a very, very big topic,” Vatavuk said. “If you look at California, Arizona, they don’t have enough water and were trying to make sure that Pennsylvania not only keeps the water that they have but also keeps it from being polluted.”

Somerset County Commissioner James Yoder said he is hoping to dive into property taxes and economic development, especially around the new 18-inch Quemahoning freshwater pipeline.

“We just have so much opportunity here and I want to try to get businesses in here, and I think our water resource is just really something. I’m mean, we’re just really poised to grow in my opinion.”

All three Somerset County commissioners will attend the conference. Commissioner Gerald Walker said they try to split up so they can attend as many sessions as possible. He will focus much of his attention toward combating the opioid epidemic.

“It’s going to take a combination of enforcement and education and treatment to ever get our hands wrapped around this problem,” Walker said. “And it has to be a combined effort and I think the more information we have the better off we are.”

To highlight the impact of the drug problem in Somerset County, Walker said that on any given day, 70 to 80 percent of the inmates in the county jail are there for drug and alcohol offenses.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s spokesperson said the executive had a scheduling conflict and will not attend this week’s conference.