Capitolwire: PA House floor action recap for Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.
By Chris Comisac Bureau Chief Capitolwire
HARRISBURG (Feb. 22) - The state House of Representatives wrapped up its rare late February voting session week with an equally rare Thursday session day that saw legislators send a few more bills to the Senate for that chamber’s consideration.
Three bills are on their way to the other side of the state Capitol after House votes Thursday; they seek to create a First-time Homebuyers Savings Account into which first-time homebuyers can deposit money (up to $150,000) - with the deposits being deductible from the account holder’s state income tax - for the exclusive purpose of purchasing a first home; provide for the certification of central service technicians and surgical technologists; and remove all future employees of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission from the State Employees’ Retirement System (with the last one being the only contentious vote - it was a mostly party-line vote, 108-81, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it).
The chamber also considered single amendments to two bills. Those bills would name a section of U.S. Route 220 along the Sullivan County and Bradford County line; and require dealers in precious metals to maintain the purchased items for 10 business days (instead of the current five working days). The amendment to the latter bill - which inserted an exclusion for “wholesale purchasers” and removed the requirement on dealers to include photographs of the precious metal items in their record of each transaction - was adopted on a mostly party-line 99-90 vote.
In addition to those two bills, the House also advanced toward final floor votes bills seeking to update Title 37 (Historical and Museums) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes; and increase the fine for driving a vehicle without the proper endorsement for that particular type of vehicle. A few road and bridge naming bills were likewise advanced to final votes that could occur as early as when the House is next in voting session on Monday, March 11.
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
On Thursday, Republican leadership named York County Rep. Seth Grove chair of a new state House committee tasked with looking into Pennsylvania’s executive branch at the behest of lawmakers.
The nine-member House Oversight Committee was created in January as part of the chamber’s new rules and has subpoena power to request information from state agencies.
The committee consists of five Republicans and four Democrats. The Democratic minority includes three members of the chamber’s leadership, including Whip Jordan Harris, while Republican membership is made up of rank-and-file members.
Grove told the Capital-Star he doesn’t have any targets for a first inquiry in mind, adding that the committee needs to get staff and procedure set before digging into a report.
“We are a little way off from doing an investigation,” he said.
I deleted a previous tweet on the House Oversight Committee. It is nine members, not seven, with 5 R's and 4 D's.
R Members: Chair Seth Grove Todd Stephens Eric Nelson John Lawrence Tarah Toohil D Members: Vice Chair Matt Bradford Jordan Harris Joanna McClinton Kevin Boyle
The Oversight Committee joins the Appropriations and Ethics Committees as panels with permanent subpoena powers.
By Bill O’Boyle - email@example.com
HARRISBURG — State Rep. Aaron Kaufer is one of several state legislators that introduced legislation this week to allow for community solar projects in Pennsylvania.
Kaufer said the legislation came about when lawmakers recognized that more and more Pennsylvanians are turning to solar energy to power their homes.
“All too often Pennsylvania property owners interested in relying on solar power to meet their energy needs learn their homes are not properly situated to have solar panels on their roofs. I am one of those homeowners,” said Kaufer, R-Kingston. “The bill we are introducing, which has more than three dozen co-sponsors, would give such homeowners, and others, the option to join their neighbors in creating community solar projects.”
Kaufer said at this time last year, the number of solar energy system installations in the state increased 24 percent over the same period in 2017. At nearly the same time, the cost to install large solar farms decreased 11 percent while the cost of rooftop systems decreased 26 percent. That shows solar is becoming increasing popular and even more cost effective for consumers.
Under House Bill 531, homeowners, renters and other property owners would be able to join other participants in subscribing to a portion of an off-site solar project and receive credit on their electricity bill for the power that is produced, just as if the panels were on their roofs.
It would also create new energy markets, encourage entrepreneurship, and open solar energy systems to low- and moderate-income residents who may otherwise not be able to afford such systems. Nineteen other states and Washington, D.C., have already given their residents the option of taking part in community solar projects.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.
Source: Greene County Messenger Date: 2/22/2019
Local state representative introduces bill in continued fight for broadband
By Mark Hofmann, for the Greene County Messenger
State Rep. Pam Snyder isn’t giving up on bringing broadband internet access to the unserved and underserved people of the state’s rural counties.
She introduced one bill and two resolutions this week she hopes will address several issues related to lack of access in counties like Greene, where she’s from.
The bill directs the state Department of General Services to conduct an inventory of communication towers, poles, bridges and facilities to leverage existing assets and provide access to areas without broadband service.
“This isn’t about someone getting on Facebook,” said Snyder, D-Jefferson. “It’s about being able to function and being competitive in the year 2019.”
Even though Pennsylvania has over 200 internet providers, Snyder said more than 800,000 residents – including 520,000 in rural areas – lack broadband service.
The reason? Running fiber optic cables on a 10-mile stretch of roadway where there’s only two or three houses or farms becomes cost prohibitive to a company, she said.
The lacking service has far-reaching impacts, she said.
“School students aren’t able to complete their assignments at home, and companies are less likely to locate in regions of our state without reliable broadband access,” Snyder said. “Hospitals are unable to provide telemedicine or use other advanced technologies to help their patients. These communities shouldn’t wait any longer – the time for action is now.”
One of the resolutions she introduced directs the Joint State Government Commission to audit and investigate the compliance by non-rural telecommunications carriers with previously enacted laws from 1993 and 2004.
“Despite the passage of measures back in 1993 and 2004 to ensure all areas of our state have access to a modern broadband telecommunications network by 2015, that obviously hasn’t happened and it’s extremely frustrating,” Snyder said.
The second resolution establishes a bipartisan, bicameral commission to make recommendations as to how to get broadband services into all areas of the state.
“We’re continuing to work toward trying to find solutions and making sure everyone has access,” Snyder said.
Snyder said she has been in discussions with Microsoft about their pilot program to use the low-frequency white spaces spectrum, which is the spectrum between television channels, to provide internet services to all rural areas. Twelve states are currently participating in the program, but Pennsylvania is not one of them.
“I’m hopeful that Pennsylvania will be a part of that project this year,” Snyder said, adding what Microsoft is doing will offer another option for rural areas. “That’s the key to
success in my opinion, have multiple alternatives for people so they have options and ability to access what they need.”
She added that Gov. Tom Wolf just hired someone to head the state’s broadband initiative and said both Wolf and federal officials have made the issue a high priority.
“This is not an easy issue and not something that’s easily fixed, but we’re making great strides, and everybody is supportive of this,” Snyder said.
By J.D. Prose
Two resolutions authored by state Rep. Rob Matzie unanimously passed the House this week.
On Wednesday, the House voted to adopt a resolution by Matzie, D-16, Ambridge, designating March 10 to 16 as Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week in Pennsylvania.
In a statement, Matzie, whose father is living with MS, said it was important to raise awareness for a disease that attacks the central nervous system of an estimated 400,000 Americans and 24,000 Pennsylvanians.
“Although it isn’t fatal, MS can steal quality of life from people in a dozen different ways,” he said in a statement.
“While there is no cure, there are treatments that can help modify the disease process. That’s why it’s essential to expand awareness about the disease,” Matzie said. “The sooner MS is diagnosed, the sooner a patient can receive medication and make lifestyle changes – with help from the family – that can curb relapses and help manage the disease.”
His father thought his vision problems were from optic nerve damage, Matzie said, when they were a symptom of MS that left him legally blind in one eye. The lawmaker said people can learn more about MS by going to www.nationalmssociety.org .
Matzie’s resolution that passed Thursday names March 10 as Charter Day, recognizing King Charles II’s grant to William Penn on March 4, 1881, of land that would become Pennsylvania.
The resolution also honors Penn’s “remarkable ‘Frame of Government’” that, according to Matzie’s statement, “laid the groundwork for our democracy by introducing ideas such as freedom of religion, fair trials and a balancing of powers that would inspire the framers of the U.S. Constitution.”
Lastly, the resolution recognizes historical groups, commissions and boards, and volunteers for their work. The Pennsylvania charter is displayed at the State Museum in Harrisburg.
Reward for information on albino deer's killer increased to $1,500
An anonymous donor’s generosity has boosted the reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who used a high-powered pellet gun to shoot and kill a rare albino whitetail deer in Westmont.
The $500 donation has been added to the $1,000 reward previously offered by Cambria County Crime Stoppers, making the total reward $1,500, state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, said in a press release issued Thursday.
Anyone with information on the killing of the deer, which was found dead on Feb. 8 near homes on Bates Drive, is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-548-7500. Callers can remain anonymous, according to Crime Stoppers founder Gary Martin.
“Those of us involved in offering this reward hope that it encourages cooperation that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible,” Burns said in the press release, calling the killing a "cowardly and illegal occurrence."
Seth Mesoras, the Pennsylvania Game Commission warden for Cambria County, said last week that the full-grown doe was a common sight in and around Westmont “for quite some time” before it was killed. Its distinctive lack of coloration made it a popular topic of conversation among many community residents, he said.
In a letter published Wednesday in The Tribune-Democrat's Readers' Forum, Johnstown resident Greg Krieger wrote that he saw the albino deer many times while jogging in Westmont and Upper Yoder Township, always leaving "with a smile on (his) face." He urged anyone with information about the "senseless killing" to contact authorities.
Krieger shared his memory of one early-morning encounter with several deer, including the albino doe, as they crossed busy Goucher Street near Carl A. Engh Field.
"The cars came to a complete stop in both directions as the deer slowly made their crossing," he wrote. "When some of the drivers saw the albino deer, they jumped out of their vehicles to take pictures. They had the same smile on their faces as I always had when I encountered this beautiful animal."
Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.
By Jason Scott
When Adam Harris left the state House in November after 16 years in office, he didn't have another job lined up.
His wife told him to wait for the right opportunity. Two weeks later, one of his passions — the craft-beer industry — gave him the perfect post-legislative recipe.
The former Juniata County lawmaker got a call from the Brewers of Pennsylvania asking if he would like to be deputy director of the state’s official brewers guild and oversee advocacy efforts for the 200-member organization.
“I jumped at the chance without any hesitation,” said Harris, who started his new job last month.
The former Republican lawmaker spent his last two years as chairman of the state House Liquor Control Committee during a period of major reform.
But there is still work to be done.
Harris, who now lives in Cumberland County, joins the Brewers of Pennsylvania as its members brace for a state directive to levy sales taxes on taproom sales.
The state Department of Revenue wants breweries to start charging a 6 percent sales tax on all their taproom products, including draft beers served on site and six-packs and growlers sold to go.
The collection effort was slated to begin in January but was pushed back to July after lobbying by the Brewers of Pennsylvania. The guild is hoping for a longer delay.
The other big item on the organization’s agenda is giving breweries more flexibility in distribution agreements with wholesalers.
Current law requires breweries to distribute their products through a single wholesaler in a territory under contracts that are difficult to break, unless the breweries handle their own distribution. The guild wants breweries to be able to buy their way out of existing distribution agreements, achieving what it calls beer equity.
The Business Journal caught up with Harris as he begins touring the state and meeting with brewers.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
CPBJ: Where might this sales tax situation go this year? Could it be delayed or modified?
Harris: We’ve been talking to the governor’s office and they seem to be suggesting a legislative fix. Ideally, we would love to see it shelved, at least pushed back maybe another six months or a year to talk about it.
If the Department of Revenue does the tax this way, you will pay four, five, maybe even six times the amount of tax if you go and have a beer at a brewery as opposed to buying it at a restaurant or bar, which we think is completely unfair.
In 2015, when the regulations were relaxed and taprooms were allowed to open, the Department of Revenue said these will be tax-exempt sales. The way this industry is growing we don’t think we should slow that momentum down.
The second fix, if that isn’t possible, is that we just want there to be equity with the way beer is taxed at the wholesale level. For example, if a keg goes to a bar or restaurant, and it’s a $150 keg, they’re going to pay a 6 percent sales tax on that. That’s going to be $9. But the way the Department of Revenue wants to treat brewpubs and taphouses, they want us to do it as an over-the-bar drink tax. So that same barrel of beer taxed at $9 is now being taxed on each pint that comes out. If you’re taxing 6 percent on 120 pints, you’re going to collect something like $35 in taxes.
CPBJ: If this issue is the biggest concern for brewers, why are we still seeing new places opening up and existing breweries expanding?
Harris: I simply think we’re going to get a Y in the road and these businesses are going to have to decide “Am I got to eat that cost or am I going to pass it directly on to the consumer?”
From the bigger picture, it might seem like it’s only a couple of dollars here and there, but just compare it to the example of what happened in Harrisburg city with parking rates. People found other places to go and they found other places to entertain themselves.
We just think we have a great thing going here with making these transactions tax exempt. A lot of these people that jumped in back in 2015, 2016 and 2017, they invested as if they we're going to be tax exempt.
But they are good business people and they’re going to make that adjustment.
CPBJ: Do you think this changes the business model for some breweries?
Harris: I think the brewers that are most in jeopardy are smaller brewers.Those that are just starting out, they're still paying off their business loans, maybe have theirhouse mortgaged or are using credit cards.
That is going to be a big part of my job in the next couple weeks, talking to small, medium and large brewers and asking them how this is going to affect them. I think some of them are absolutely going to answer “We're 100 percent passing this on to the consumer.”
Some are probably going to try to eat what they can but I think the smaller to medium-sized brewers are very concerned about how this is going to change their expansion plans, how they pay their employees, maybe even their hiring for the summer.
CPBJ: Are there any current bills you expect to see move this year to help address the beer equity issue?
Harris: I know our team is actively looking for a co-sponsor.
Quite simply, it's just a freedom issue. If an agreement for whatever reason just simply isn't working out between a wholesaler and a brewer, we feel there needs to be a fair way for that to come to an end. The current system is just too expensive and it takes too long. We feel like a change is needed, particularly in a state like Pennsylvania, where we have so many blossoming craft brewers. A lot that I've talked to are really reluctant to make that jump with a wholesaler because a lot of the men and women who have been doing this for a long time say you're going to be in that contract in perpetuity, unless the wholesaler wants to let you out.
CPBJ: After leaving the House and the committee, how do you think lawmakers will proceed this year with other liquor law changes?
Harris: Obviously, the two last big changes were Act 39 and Act 166. After we did that, the consistent feedback we got from the governor's office was “OK, let's take a deep breath now and let some of these sort of sink in and see what the positive effects are.”
I think we've had enough time for those two big changes to settle in. I think this legislative session we’re willing and ready to probably do some new things and hopefully the governor will be on board.
I was quite surprised that we were able pass two major liquor bills in that short of a time frame. I don't think it all sank in until I started to see retailers, grocery stores and beer distributors advertising the changes and wine was showing up on grocery-store shelves. It was incredibly satisfying to see the concepts we talked about actually change the way people bought adult beverages in PA.
CPBJ: What additional changes might crop up?
Harris: The one item that I think was left on the table when I left the legislature was the idea of some type of spirits-to-go proposal that would increase consumer access to spirits.
However, I can say from experience that when we discussed this proposal, members of the House tended to have a very different opinion of spirits as opposed to beer and wine. Because it
generally has a much higher alcohol content, many members didn't feel comfortable increasing its availability and preferred keeping its distribution within the PLCB.
This decision probably also benefited our PA craft distillers who are selling direct to consumers. I'll be watching closely to see if this opinion has shifted at all in the new legislative session.
Harris: Not only do I think it's not the greatest way to fund government, you're guessing how much people are going to partake in each of these things. From my experience, we usually overestimate how much is going to come in. But unfortunately we're sort of in a strange place in Pennsylvania. You have a pretty strong Republican legislature and a Democratic governor and it's kind of been decided that there will be nothing on sales and income taxes, which is the giant chunk, probably 70 percent of the budget. When you don't have any agreement on altering either one of those two, you have to get creative and I think we've been doing that for a number of years.
CPBJ: What is your favorite style of beer and favorite brewery to visit in Pennsylvania?
Harris: I love Troegs and Victory Brewing. Actually one in my former legislative district just opened up: Shy Bear Brewing, in Lewistown.
I'm more of an IPA drinker, but I'm starting to get more into the porters and the darker beers.
At our fingertips is a potential $581 million generated annually from legalized marijuana that could be used to establish substance abuse treatment facilities to help stem the deadly tide of drug overdoses and deaths across our state.
Nationwide, 130 people die from drug overdoses every day.
The funding would also be significant enough for Pennsylvania to embark on aggressive inpatient treatment programs and to build new facilities to help those who are struggling with mental health issues. This not only would save individuals and families, it would help prevent random mass shootings and other tragedies.
The state auditor general estimates legalizing marijuana would yield at least $580 million in tax revenue. Deploying that level of funding to treat drug abuse and mental health would save thousands of lives and relieve untold suffering.
Yet before we can dedicate that money to help those in need, the General Assembly must first act to legalize marijuana. To make informed judgments, not only will citizens have to be educated, but lawmakers will have to reorder their thinking. Putting a question on the ballot and having voters cast votes for or against legalization can serve as a tool to inform.
It is appropriate that citizens have an avenue to express their opinion. Legalizing marijuana is a big step, and extraordinary action should be taken to ensure that the issue is fully vetted. The results of an informational referendum would give lawmakers a real sense of the level of public support. It would also help show regional differences and interpret citizen preferences.
Some argue that it is time that Pennsylvania add its name to the list of states that have legalized marijuana. Others have pumped the brakes, arguing that marijuana is a gateway drug and that other drug problems would be exacerbated by legalization.
Admittedly, there are many legislative and legal hurdles ahead before the issue can be placed on the ballot. Perhaps the most substantial is the federal government’s designation of marijuana as a controlled substance and that its use, sale or distribution remains illegal. Since the 1930s, the federal government’s view has been clear and unchanged regardless of how many states have legalized medical or recreational marijuana.
Ignoring federal law is not for the faint of heart. However, other states have already ventured down this path without retribution.
Before that high federal hurdle is cleared, there undoubtedly will be a legislative challenge to putting the question on the ballot and letting citizens decide. Past efforts to authorize a referendum were derailed by legislative opponents and courts who claimed that referendums were an unconstitutional delegation of power. Those were different days with different facts and circumstances.
This latter issue can be addressed by the nature and design of the ballot question. Put in its proper context, a question put before the voters simply asking their views for informational purposes is not an official action; rather, it is an information-gathering tool.
The first step toward legalization was taken when Pennsylvania approved the use of medical marijuana . The next issue is to ascertain if Pennsylvania is willing to take the leap and legalize marijuana. Finally, we must determine how best to utilize tax proceeds.
The use of a ballot question to better understand how legalizing marijuana is viewed by a broader swath of Pennsylvanians would provide invaluable guidance as the legislature takes up this issue.
Jim Brewster is a Pennsylvania state senator representing the 45th District
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
Officials from the Pennsylvania State Police say their personnel and equipment budgets will be in jeopardy if the municipalities they police full-time don’t help them foot the bill.
They’re asking lawmakers to let them impose a new fee on boroughs and townships that don’t maintain their own police forces. But a top Republican senator says his colleagues won’t take their request seriously until they suggest some alternatives.
In a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, top brass from the State Police asserted their need to assess a per-capita fee on municipalities that rely on the State Police coverage instead of paying for their own police departments.
The State Police provide full-time coverage to 1,296 of Pennsylvania’s 2,561 municipalities. And while they provide support services to all police across the commonwealth, they aren’t reimbursed by the towns they police full-time.
In his 2019-20 budget, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed that municipalities pay a sliding scale fee to the State Police based on their population size. His proposal would generate an estimated $103.9 million in revenue.
Wolf and his predecessors have made similar pitches before. Last year, Wolf’s $25 per-capita flat fee proposal got axed in budget negotiations.
On Thursday, Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, asked State Police officials what would happen if the same thing happened this year.
“Without that fee or something to fill that void, it puts a big dent in our budget,” acting Commissioner Robert Evanchick said.
Evanchick said his department is struggling with new constraints on the state’s Motor License Fund, which makes up the bulk of the State Police’s budget. He said incoming cadet classes could be impacted if lawmakers don’t authorize a new revenue stream soon.
The State Police are also preparing to make $70 million in equipment upgrades in the coming year, he said. Without a fee from municipalities, they’ll will have to take funds from other sources to cover that expense.
Critics of the per-capita fee argue that not all municipalities that rely on the State Police use their services equally. They want the agency to consider a service-based model instead.
The State Police provide an array of services to local law enforcement agencies across the commonwealth, such as fingerprint analysis and aviation support.
State Police already charge local agencies for lab work. But they say they don’t want to get into the business of monetizing public safety services.
“With things like aviation, we cannot charge for those [without] becoming more of a commercial entity,” Evanchick said. “It’s not a practical way to get money back.”
Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, reminded the State Police that they were asked to prepare an alternative revenue proposal when they appeared before the committee last year.
Evanchick told Browne those models are being prepared by the Office of the Budget and Wolf’s office. After the hearing, he said State Police have discussed their own alternatives internally, but he declined to say more.
Browne expressed frustration that the PSP came back before the committee with the same per-capita fee request year after year.
“If there’s an alternative that many people have talked about, it would make sense for those who understand this to offer up a different model and not come back with the same one,” Browne said.
He also said the department should prepare more proposals if they want the General Assembly to hear them out.
“Until those are on the table, I’m going to recommend to our caucus that we don’t take any of this seriously,” Browne said. “It frustrates me that there are people who bring these alternatives forward … but we are left in the same place now that we were last year.”
WRITTEN BY DAN KELLY
READING, PA — The lament of nonvoters that they are just one vote could never be further from the truth.
Not with the 2020 Census and subsequent redrawing of legislative district lines just around the corner.
That was the one conclusion drawn by attendees of a special town hall meeting sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Berks County and Reading Area Community College.
The meeting included a panel discussion by Reading Councilwoman Donna Reed, who is running for county commissioner; state Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat; and Sally Trump, Fair Districts PA coordinator for Berks and Schuylkill counties. LWV member Elizabeth Stanley moderated the discussion, which was hosted by Jodi Greene, president of the Berks LWV and assistant professor of history and political science at RACC.
Reed told the audience of about 20 that in addition to going to the polls on Election Day, voters should also seek their political representatives when they have a question or complaint about local, state or federal government issues.
Schwank agreed, saying voters should not be concerned about approaching their elected officials, especially if they helped vote them into office.
“I know I'm going to regret this, but if you see your representative in the supermarket, go up and talk to them,” Schwank said. “If they're anything like me, if they don't know the answer, they'll go back to their staffs and ask if your question has been an issue with other voters in the district.”
Stanley gave a brief presentation on the perils of gerrymandering for the individual voter. After each census, state politicians redraw legislative district maps. Ideally, those new maps would keep neighborhoods, municipalities and counties together.
Good political maps should have lines that create compact and contiguous districts, Trump said. When politics are injected into the process, district maps are redrawn with political parties, not voters, in mind, she said.
The League of Women Voters and Fair Districts Berks and Schuylkill Counties will conduct another information session Monday, March 4, at 7 p.m. at Wyomissing Restaurant & Bakery. Free coffee and doughnuts will be served.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org .
A state investigation inspired by Luzerne County election director Marisa Crispell’s ties to a county vendor will end today, three days after county council members received copies of a report about a separate investigation commissioned by the county.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in December said he would conduct a review of how counties obtain voting equipment. He cited Crispell’s service two years ago on the advisory board of Election Systems & Software — which supplied the voting machines the county has used for more than 10 years, as well as an electronic poll book system the county purchased last year — as the impetus for his review.
DePasquale called Crispell’s trips to advisory board meetings at the company’s expense a “disgrace” and described her March 2017 trip to a meeting in Las Vegas as a “junket.”
This morning, DePasquale will discuss the results of his investigation at a news conference in Harrisburg.
He will refer to the controversy in Luzerne County but it will probably not be the main focus of his remarks, an auditor general’s office spokesman said.
As they wait to hear what DePasquale has to say, county officials Thursday continued to decline comment on the contents of the report the county received from the Harrisburg law firm McNees Wallace & Nurick.
The county hired the firm in December to determine if Crispell or other county employees violated county codes or standards.
Crispell has said she cleared her trips to advisory board meetings with county director of administrative services David Parsnik and election board solicitor Michael Butera, and resigned from the advisory board before the county sought proposals from vendors for the poll book system.
Council members received copies of the McNees report at an executive session on Tuesday. They have declined to comment on it since, noting that chief county solicitor Romilda Crocamo told them it is a confidential personnel matter.
The only people to receive copies of the report were county Manager David Pedri and council members, Crocamo wrote in an email Thursday.
Not even members of the county board of elections, which oversees the elections bureau that Crispell heads, will see the report, according to Crocamo.
“This is a personnel matter that cannot be discussed with authority, board, and commissions,” Crocamo wrote.
It is not clear if any other investigations into the Crispell controversy are active.
Some county council members said they heard the matter has been referred to the state ethics commission. Crocamo on Wednesday said she could not confirm that.
Robert Caruso, executive director of the ethics commission, on Thursday said commission officials are not permitted to confirm or deny the existence of ethics complaints.
However, once ethics complaints are adjudicated, rulings and orders are posted to the commission’s website, Caruso said.
It is also not clear if the public will ever know what if any disciplinary actions were imposed on Crispell or other county employees.
Crocamo, in a statement issued Wednesday, said county administration “has taken swift corrective action with respect to violations of any county codes and human resources policies involving this incident.”
But the report’s findings “are internal personnel issues, and it has been the county’s practice not to comment on such matters,” Crocamo said.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck on Wednesday said she hopes that once all investigations are completed, council will discuss the matter in open session.
On Thursday, Councilwoman Jane Walsh Waitkus said she agrees with Houck.
DePasquale’s press conference, scheduled for 11:30 a.m., may be viewed live at: http://pacast.com/players/live_audgen.asp
Contact the writer:email@example.com, 570-821-2117
Steve Esack Call Harrisburg Bureau
The next decennial census count of the nation’s population is right around the corner.
To prepare for the April 1, 2020, start of the count, Gov. Tom Wolf has selected more than three dozen organizations to help Pennsylvania poll its people.
The Governor’s Census 2020 Complete Count Commission includes education outfits, farming groups, religious organizations, government entities, media outfits and nonprofits that operate in every corner of the state.
“Having an accurate count of Pennsylvania’s population is essential for fair representation at the federal level,” Wolf said in a statement. “This commission will help our state to have a full and accurate count of our population. We need all people to be counted, from our biggest cities to our small and rural communities.”
Counting heads is important. The more people a state has, the more federal money it can receive. Population also is tied to how many members of Congress a state receives for 10 years, and Pennsylvania is already projected to lose one member of Congress due to relatively stagnant population growth.
But the rules behind the upcoming count remain an unknown.
There are at least seven federal lawsuits challenging the legality of the way President Donald Trump ’s administration plans to conduct the count. Breaking from decades of precedent, Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March that the U.S. Census would add a citizenship question to the census.
The lawsuits accuse the administration of trying to use the citizenship question to scare off immigrants from responding to the survey and therefore reduce federal spending. The administration argues the question is legitimate and appropriate because it was used up until 1950 and is used on periodic sample surveys in years between the decennial count.
In January, a federal judge in New York ruled against the Trump administration in a lawsuit filed by 17 attorney generals, including Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
A trial is ongoing in Maryland federal court.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said it would decide an appeal by June.
Wolf’s commission will be led by Norman Bristol Colón, of the Department of Community and Economic Development. Organizations include:
The following organizations will be represented on the Governor’s Census 2020 Complete Count Commission:
Sam Ruland , York Daily Record
If you pay a fortune teller and expect to get an accurate glimpse into your future, you're probably just a sucker. But if you do it while you're in Pennsylvania, you're also aiding and abetting a crime — since according to state law, fortune telling is illegal.
Good to know, right?
Well, it's not Pennsylvania's only wacky law. So here's a roundup of weird, bizarre, quirky, or otherwise nonsensical laws that really do exist...at least according to state legislatures, local newspapers, or legal databases.
And warning, you're probably guilty of one or two violations.
Source: Watchdog.org Date: 2/22/2019
Professors spar over impact of minimum wage hike, but both sides agree that prices of goods will rise
The legislative debate over increasing the minimum wage in Pennsylvania has now become an academic dispute, as well.
Daniel MacDonald and Eric Nilsson, professors at California State University San Bernardino's Department of Economics, published a critique this week of the Feb. 6 testimony of Susquehanna University professor Matthew Rousu before the Pennsylvania House Labor & Industry Committee.
Rousu, citing the work of MacDonald and Nilsson in an Upjohn Institute research paper , had argued that increasing the minimum wage would have the negative effect of raising the cost of living, thereby reducing the buying power of lower- and middle-income families.
“If there's a 0.36 percent increase in prices for a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, if this holds linearly, a minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $12 an hour is 65.5 percent, which would mean Pennsylvania prices would increase by 2.36 percent,” Rousu testified Feb. 6. “Translating that to a family who's earning approximately the median income of Pennsylvania, $55,000 a year, that family would lose $1,300 in purchasing power.”
MacDonald and Nilsson, however, argued that Rousu misinterpreted their work . They said that the 0.36 percent increase noted in their paper only applied to restaurant prices and could not be applied to the economy as a whole.
“The existing research indicates that the impact of a minimum wage hike on restaurant prices is much larger than its impact on prices outside the restaurant industry,” they wrote. “That is, following a minimum wage hike, the increase in the price of a Big Mac will far outstrip the increase in the price of, say, a pair of brand name shoes.
“The reason is simple,” they continued. “[R]estaurants have many minimum wage workers, and an increase in the minimum wage will boost costs for a restaurant noticeably. But outside the restaurant industry, minimum wage workers are far less common, and in these industries a minimum wage hike will cause a small, or no, increase in labor costs.”
After presenting their argument as to why Rousu’s estimate of a 2.36 percent hike in prices was wrong, MacDonald and Nilsson sought to offer a figure of their own, arriving at just 0.58 percent, less than a quarter of the hike Rousu had predicted.
When contacted by Watchdog.org , Rousu said that there is other research calling into question the assertions of MacDonald and Nilsson that restaurants would be harder hit than other sectors of the economy.
“MacDonald and Nilsson think an average price increase estimate of 0.36 [percent] for all products is too high, but some scholars report estimates on price increases that are much higher, like 2.71 [percent] for the service sector, or up to 4 [percent] in restaurants,” Rousu said by email.
Rousu, who is the dean of the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University, also noted that his estimates had been based on an increase of the minimum wage to $12 an hour, which Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal would do this year. But the governor’s proposal also calls for 50 cent hikes each year until it hits $15 an hour, and further increases in perpetuity tied to the rate of inflation.
As a result, he said, regardless of whether you accept his figures or those of MacDonald and Nilsson, prices would rise significantly either way. He calculated that with MacDonald and Nilsson’s suggested 0.58 percent price hike, the family making $55,000 would still see a loss of $319 in buying power with a $12 per hour minimum wage.
“I appreciate that we are not having a conversation on whether prices will increase with a minimum wage,” he said. “[MacDonald and Nilsson’s statement], while arguing a lower impact, provides an estimate that prices increase by 0.58 [percent] for a $12 minimum wage. … That is lower than my estimate but it is not trivial. Hence, we all recognize prices will increase.
“It is a step in the right direction that this dialogue is about how much prices will increase for middle-income families should Pennsylvania raise the minimum wage,” he concluded.
As lawmakers begin to debate Gov. Tom Wolf ’s 2019-20 budget proposal, I would urge them to consider the headlines from some of our neighboring states regarding one of the governor’s top priorities — raising our state’s shameful $7.25 an hour minimum wage:
$15 minimum wage is now coming to New Jersey
Ohio minimum wage set to rise
New York State Minimum Wage Hike Takes Effect
In fact, every one of our surrounding states has a higher minimum wage — and by significant margins. At the start of this year, more than 5 million workers in 20 states and in 24 cities and counties around the nation saw an increase in their minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s wage has not been raised in more than a decade.
Raising the wage to $15 would lift wages for 2.1 million Pennsylvania workers — or 37 percent of the state’s total workforce. The majority of workers in the state who would benefit are adults who are working full time. On average, the workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase account for nearly half of their family’s income.
Lawmakers also need to understand that raising the minimum wage would generate at least $140 million in new revenues and savings in the state’s Medicaid program that can be earmarked for important priorities, such as our public schools or crumbling infrastructure.
A higher minimum wage is a cornerstone of the CLEAR Coalition’s Blueprint for Growing Pennsylvania’s Economy, which includes proposals that, all together, would generate $3.5 billion in new revenues and savings through efficiencies.
The plan will help create higher wages, more jobs and revenue for investments in our public schools, in technical education and workforce development, and adequate funding for other core services and programs.
The coalition also supports enacting a commonsense and long overdue tax on the Marcellus shale drillers; closing corporate tax loopholes; and ending overpayments to charter and cyber charter schools among other proposals.
A fair shale tax of 2.4 percent would generate as much as $200 million in its first year; as much as $400 million in year two and $1.7 billion in new revenues over five years.
Incredibly, the GOP leaders in the state House oppose any shale tax, despite the fact that the bulk of this tax could be paid by out-of-state consumers because 80 percent of the natural gas produced in our state is purchased by residents of other states and internationally.
Pennsylvania remains the only natural gas-producing state that does not impose a statewide excise tax on natural gas. It is time for drillers to pay their fair share.
Similarly, fixing our tax structure would generate more than $2 billion in new revenues and reverse a decades-long trend of providing tax breaks to corporations — at the expense of all taxpayers.
In 1972, 30 percent of state revenues were generated by corporate taxes. In the last fiscal year, corporate taxes accounted for 15 percent of total tax revenue. Now, income tax from Pennsylvania citizens fills that larger hole in state coffers.
All combined, these proposals would generate an estimated $3.5 billion in new revenue and savings and efficiencies in state government operations — and unlike many other revenue proposals, it does so without increasing the taxes or fees paid by the majority of Pennsylvania citizens.
We must continue making smart investments in essential services and programs that Pennsylvanians rely on — and the commonwealth needs to enact real, sustainable revenues in order to do so.
David Fillman is the executive director of AFSCME Council 13 and a co-founder of the CLEAR Coalition, which was founded in 2010 by seven of the state’s largest public employee unions representing approximately 1 million Pennsylvanians.
By Jo Ciavaglia
One in three Americans has a criminal history, which could act as a barrier to obtaining an occupational license in many states. Should it? A recently filed lawsuit argues that good moral character-based restrictions in licensing are arbitrary and unconstitutional.
Nearly three years ago, Courtney Haveman spent six months and $6,000 to complete the training Pennsylvania requires for people who work in skin treatment and hair removal. A local salon was ready to hire the Lower Makefield resident as an esthetician once she passed the state licensing exam.
It was another major accomplishment in her new, sober life.
But the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology didn’t agree.
The board, whose members include professionals in the field and state appointees, rejected her application to take the licensing exam after Haveman, now 26, disclosed misdemeanor crimes she committed while struggling with alcohol addiction. Her past conduct suggested that she “may not be of sufficient good moral character” to work in the beauty industry, according to the rejection letter.
“I was so upset. I was so discouraged,” she said. “I thought I was just one of those who fell through the cracks and lost out on my dreams.”
She wasn’t. Between 2015 and last year, the same state licensing board denied 70 other people the opportunity to take its licensing exams, citing the “good moral character” standard , according to Andrew Ward, an attorney with the Institute for Justice .
Late last year, the Virginia legal nonprofit sued the state Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs and the state Board of Cosmetology on behalf of Haveman and a Philadelphia woman, contending its character standard is unconstitutional and discriminatory since it’s not required for a barber license, a male-dominated career.
The following Pennsylvania licensing boards do not mention character provisions in application requirements:
The Board of Auctioneer Examiners
The Board of Barber Examiners
The Navigation Commission
The Real Estate Commission
The Board of Vehicle Manufactures, Dealers & Salespersons
The Board of Veterinary Medicine
The Board of Architects requires applicants show “good character,” but not specifically “good moral character.”
Source: Institute of Justice
“Good character has nothing to do with skin care or hair removal,” Ward said. “There could absolutely be other boards denying for other occupations because of ‘good moral character’ requirements
Occupational licensing restrictions are the latest area that criminal justice reform advocates are targeting for change. Reformers contend that good moral character requirements are arbitrary, poorly defined, overly inclusive, potentially irrelevant, unevenly applied, and an employment barrier for individuals who pose no serious risk to public.
“These requirements are not an effective way of promoting legitimate public interests in safety and competence and are a significant barrier to rehabilitation for those with criminal records,” said Deborah L. Rhode, director of the Stanford University Center on Legal Profession and a legal ethics scholar, who has studied good moral character requirements in occupational licensing. “Because racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to have run-ins with the criminal law, they pay a special price for these requirements.”
A growing number of states are recognizing the potential barriers facing individuals with minor, old criminal records in employment, housing, school, volunteering and other opportunities. As a result, legislative efforts are underway to make it easier for certain ex-offenders to find work by restricting access to public criminal records, and limiting employer criminal checks and licensing prerequisites to only offenses directly related to the duties and responsibilities of the profession, according to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center .
Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act, which took effect last year, seals the criminal records of individuals with nonviolent misdemeanors and summary offenses who remain conviction-free for 10 years and have paid all fines. Those sealed records would not be accessible to potential employers, landlords, lenders, social service agencies and others, although they still will appear in FBI background checks.
But administrative regulations used by licensing boards sometimes are overlooked, reform advocates said.
Only eight states allow ex-offenders to petition a licensing board at any time, including before enrolling in any required training, to determine if their convictions would be disqualifying, according to the Institute for Justice. Ten states generally bar licensing boards from denying ex-offenders a license to work, unless the board determines that the applicant’s criminal record is directly related to the license sought, according to the institute.
In Pennsylvania, each professional and occupational licensing board can consider an applicant’s criminal convictions when making licensure decisions. Thirteen licensing boards, mostly in health-related fields, impose a mandatory 10-year license ban for drug-related felony convictions.
More than 60 professional licenses in the state require “good moral character.” Pennsylvania courts have found “crimes of moral turpitude” can trigger the good moral character provision, including simple assault, furnishing liquor to minors and theft by unlawful taking.
The potential economic impact of excessive licensing restrictions is significant. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that roughly one-quarter of full-time American jobs require a professional license or government approval to practice. Pennsylvania regulates 255 license types — including four types of cosmetology licenses — and just over 1 million license-holders, according to the state.
Successful re-entry into the workforce has been shown to greatly increase the chances an ex-offender will not commit new crimes, according to reform advocates. A 2016 Arizona State University study found that states with the heaviest occupational licensing burdens had higher new-crime recidivism rates, while states with lower burdens and no good character requirements saw a decline in recidivism rates.
Criminal histories and character-based restrictions are used as a “quick limit” to weed out perceived undesirable applicants, according to Leora Eisenstadt, an assistant legal studies professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business who specializes in employment law. More individual assessments of applicants typically take a lot longer, but are more fair.
“That a single conviction unrelated to a job can destroy your future is problematic,” Eisenstadt added. “If it’s not related and doesn’t pose a danger, it’s just a barrier to someone becoming gainfully employed.”
‘A good chance’
The good moral character standard has been part of the state cosmetology licensing code for decades, but its use was reinvigorated in 2014, when mandatory criminal background checks became part of the application process, according to Ward.
In 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf authorized a review of occupational licensing requirements to determine if updates were necessary. The subsequent report released last year acknowledged the good moral character provision has the potential to be applied unevenly. The report suggested the administration examine its regulations to ensure they didn’t create “unnecessary” employment barriers.
Compared to other nearby states, Pennsylvania is an outlier in applying an automatic criminal history licensure ban, according to the report. While a handful of states have similar bans as Pennsylvania, the majority authorize consideration of criminal history only under certain circumstances, such as where the crime was related to the occupation being licensed.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching current members of the state Cosmetology Licensing Board for comment on how the character standard is used. Former board Chairman Stephen Wallin, director of the School of Beauty Culture, referred questions to board solicitor Shana Walter, who did not respond to an email seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for the state agency that oversees licensing said it has made changes to ensure applications for individuals with criminal histories are reviewed in their entirety and not disqualified based solely on criminal convictions.
The department has introduced new administrative measures , including probationary licenses, Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren said. The new licensing category is the same as regular full professional licenses, but allow the license to be immediately pulled if the person gets into additional legal trouble, Murren said. Regular licenses require a full disciplinary process that can last a year or longer, she added.
Applicants who previously were denied can reapply and the application would be reviewed “using the current standards,” Murren said. She could not answer specific questions regarding Haveman or co-plaintiff Amanda Spillane, citing the Institute of Justice lawsuit.
The department also is finalizing materials it will use as part of an upcoming public education campaign about the administrative licensing changes that Murren anticipates would be rolled out soon.
“We really do want to get the word out to the public (that) simply having a criminal history isn’t going to prevent them from getting a professional license. Not anymore,” she said. “We are looking at the complete application. Looking at qualifications. Where they are in their lives. There is still a good chance of having a professional life. A good chance.”
But Ward remains skeptical.
Spillane was among 55 cosmetology applicants between 2015 and last year who appealed their initial denials.
She brought reference letters, an outstanding employer review, and certificates from her completed courses to the hearing in 2015, but the board criticized her for not bringing witnesses to testify on her behalf, and she was grilled about her church attendance, Ward said. Spillane was not among the 44 applicants who had their denials reversed.
“Courtney was denied because of old, irrelevant misdemeanors. ... Amanda went through a hearing that was supposed to be holistic, but instead left her in tears and unable to work even though she’d earned a fresh start,” Ward said. “They don’t want to go through a degrading process like that again, and they’re suing because they shouldn’t have to.”
Today, Haveman is a married mother of a toddler. She has been sober since 2013. She is a stay-at-home mom, but she still dreams of a career in the beauty industry.
It was while she was working in a tanning salon that Haveman discovered her interest in skin care. She decided to pursue training as an esthetician, enrolling in a program at the Bucks County Beauty Academy in Lower Southampton, where she earned her diploma in 2016.
“I like making people feel good about themselves,” she said.
Haveman said she was honest when filling out her exam application and admitted to a handful of misdemeanor convictions, including driving under the influence and simple assault.
After the state Board of Cosmetology rejected her application, Haveman wrote its members a letter describing how different her life was compared with three years before, and the progress she made in substance abuse recovery. She included character letters from people in her addiction support group.
But the board responded that she would have to appear in Harrisburg to plead her case in person. Feeling defeated, Haveman decided not to appeal.
Then last summer, she got a letter from the Institute for Justice. The organization was considering legal action against the state to remove its character-based requirement. It heard she was rejected for past misdemeanor convictions and wanted to speak to her about possibly becoming a plaintiff in the case.
At the first meeting with institute representatives in a local coffee shop, Haveman was surprised to learn how many others pursuing cosmetology careers were in the same situation.
“I really thought I was the first, and only one, for years,” she said. “I was shocked.”
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is trampling the rights of nonprofit healthcare providers, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and its affiliates contend in a newly-filed federal lawsuit.
UPMC, which is asking U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III to certify its suit as a class action, also claims new regulations in a consent decree that Shapiro is forcing upon those providers violates federal law and ignores market necessities.
Shapiro wasted no time in firing back.
“With their filings today, UPMC has shown they intend to spend countless hours and untold resources on a legal battle instead of focusing on their stated mission as a non-profit charity—promoting the public interest and providing patient access to affordable health care,” his spokesman Joe Grace said Friday.
“As stated previously, Attorney General Shapiro remains willing to work with UPMC on modifications to the consent decree that would protect Pennsylvania consumers. We seek a resolution that protects patients – not a continuation of the protracted conflict and bickering that has impacted western Pennsylvania for many years,” Grace added.
Filing of the 52-page suit comes in reaction to what UPMC claims is Shapiro’s “unlawful and unconstitutional interference with federal programs.”
“General Shapiro has illegally taken over nonprofit healthcare in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” UPMC contends. It claims the “radical” changes proposed in Shapiro’s consent decree breach both state and federal law.
Shapiro “has imposed mandatory contracting requirements, has forced ratemaking arbitrations before panels that he hand-picks and has ordered removal of corporate boards to ensure his complete control,” the UPMC suit states. “Any entity that fails to agree to these terms faces draconian penalties, including the potential loss of nonprofit status.”
A consent decree Shapiro unveiled in December is really sticking in UPMC’s craw.
It claims that decree would, among other things, require nonprofit healthcare providers to contract with any insurer who seeks a relationship. It would bar nonprofits from terminating contracts without cause, UPMC contends.
UPMC claims the decree would give Shapiro final say over advertising by nonprofits, even if the ads already have met federal muster. And, it insists, nonprofit boards would be subject to removal “at the whim of the attorney general.”
Such “interference” by Shapiro “creates a significant and detrimental impact” on the nonprofits, UPMC insists.
It is asking Jones to bar Shapiro from enforcing the contested consent decree.
Grace said Shapiro isn’t backing down. Instead, he said, “(We) are not intimidated by these court filings, and look forward to making our case on behalf of healthcare consumers who are getting an unfair deal from UPMC.”
Daniel Patrick Sheehan Of The Morning Call
Allentown Bishop Alfred Schlert said he welcomes the scrutiny and accountability Pope Francis has demanded from Catholic leaders in the clergy sex abuse crisis that has roiled the church for years.
Francis, addressing a Vatican gathering of 190 leaders of bishops conferences and religious orders on Thursday, said the faithful are watching closely as the church grapples with its catastrophic mishandling of abuse reports and callous treatment of victims.
“The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established,” Francis said as he opened a four-day summit on the crisis.
Schlert, who became bishop of the five-county Allentown Diocese in August 2017, said in a statement that he prays the summit “will be fruitful and lead to procedures to hold bishops accountable for safeguarding children.”
“As I said recently when I issued my personal pledge of accountability, I will hold myself accountable to a process of outside oversight," he said. “I welcome independent and objective scrutiny as I work to fulfill my grave responsibility to prevent abuse and to keep children safe.”
The clergy abuse crisis in the United States erupted in 2002, when the Boston Globe revealed that abusive priests had not been removed from ministry but instead were shuffled from parish to parish, where they often offended again.
Last summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury that had examined the Allentown Diocese and five others issued a report concluding that 301 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a period of decades.
Schlert’s name appeared in the report. He was not alleged to have been involved in any sexual misconduct, but was named because he had a role in how the diocese handled allegations of abuse in the 1990s.
This week, a judge has cleared the way for a woman who says she was sexually abused by an Allentown priest to move forward with a lawsuit that alleges diocesan officials, including Schlert, tried to smear and discredit her. Juliann Bortz’s lawsuit claims defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and is seeking punitive damages against the diocese.
Schlert has apologized for the past failings of clergy and leaders in the diocese, which adopted a zero-tolerance policy 16 years ago and immediately removes credibly accused clergy from ministry.
The diocese also announced in December that it had established an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program to provide compensation for victims.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore earlier this month and planned to adopt abuse policies, but was instructed by the Vatican not to vote until the summit took place.
The tone for the Vatican gathering was set at the start, with victims from five continents — Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and North America — telling the bishops of the trauma of their abuse and the additional pain the church's indifference caused them.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, called the summit after he himself botched a well-known sex abuse cover-up case in Chile last year and the scandal reignited in the U.S.
With his own papacy and the Catholic hierarchy at large facing a credibility crisis, Francis has now vowed to chart a new course and is bringing the rest of the church leadership along with him.
“Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice,” he said.
Calling for a conversion from a culture of silence to a “culture of disclosure,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna told bishops they should cooperate with civil law enforcement investigations and announce decisions about predators to their communities once cases have been decided.
He said victims had the right to damages from the church and that bishops should consider using lay experts to help guide them during abuse investigations.
Francis offered a path of reform, handing out a 21-point set of proposals for the church to consider including some that would require changes to canon law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Emotions high as Bishop Gainer visits Valley Catholics
ELYSBURG — Emotions ran high inside Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Thursday night at a listening session conducted by Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg to discusss the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on sexual abuse.
About 150 people attending the session, which lasted more than two-and-a-half hours.
The session included opening remarks from Bishop Gainer and retired Pennsylvania State Police Capt. Janet McNeal, recently hired to oversee the youth protection efforts of the Diocese. Following their remarks, the floor was opened for questions.
In those remarks, Gainer said he's heard from victims at each of his listening sessions — this was the seventh of a scheduled 11 in the Diocese — and at each stop people are angry.
People at the meeting were civil and respectful; some speakers received standing ovations.
After the meeting, some attendees expressed disappointment in the Church. Many did not want to speak, they were so upset. But several people felt it important to have their views known.
Eric Kindler, of Mechanicsburg, said he came to listen, "but to be honest, I was kind of disappointed. I was curious to hear what people would say. It was powerful to hear the testimony of the people who were abused. I was very shocked by the rampant homophobia that was expressed through over half of the questioners. That was disheartening. The focus should have been on the survivors."
Pastor John Hoke, of Saint Joseph's Church, in Milton, also was in the audience. "This was very necessary. It was edifying to see people share their pain. The bishop was very patient. He tried to respond the best he could, I think. I'm thankful we had the opportunity to do this now.
If people were negative, Hoke said, "maybe that was good too. The bishop wasn't here to take away the sting. We are all still hurting and healing will be a long process."
Saundra Forney-Colello, of Camp Hill, has been to all the listening sessions, she said. "I've not heard of any strategies or remorse by the Church hierarchy. There are a lot of survivors out there and they are completely distraught at the lack of ... it's almost like why are we here? There is the big elephant in the room, child sexual abuse, and it's not really being addressed."
The Berwick listening session scheduled for Feb. 13 was postponed due to the snow storm. It has been rescheduled for March 14 at Immaculate Conception Parish, 1730 Fowler Ave., Berwick.
Thoughts on Diocese of Harrisburg’s crisis response
DAVID E. WOOD | Special to LNP
As the Vatican meets today to discuss sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, many of the faithful here in Lancaster look for answers at home.
The Diocese of Harrisburg is made up of 15 counties and 89 parishes, with more than 230,000 Catholics. Lancaster alone has 17 Catholic parishes, made up of vibrant communities from Latino to Vietnamese and located everywhere from city neighborhoods to rural farmlands. The scandal that has ripped apart the global church has clearly been felt here in Lancaster. Several church officials who served in our county were listed on the Pennsylvania grand jury report for their alleged abuse.
Bishop Ronald Gainer has taken unprecedented measures to try to answer the questions and deal with the disappointment that most Catholics here feel as a result of the scandal. In his publication “We Pledge,” a report to the Catholic people, Gainer acknowledged the failure of diocesan leaders to protect children and young adults from sexual abuse. And he pledged to help survivors, meet the financial obligations of the church and provide a swift response to abuse reports.
In addition, Gainer has been holding listening sessions across the diocese in order to hear concerns and attempt to provide answers.
Recently, Gainer came to Lancaster along with retired Pennsylvania State Police Capt. Janet McNeal, who has been hired as the diocese’s safe environment coordinator, to meet and discuss the diocesan response and what steps the church is taking.
As a lifelong Catholic, I was very impressed with Gainer’s effort to reach out to the community. He sat through almost two hours of heartfelt and, in some cases, grueling commentary by those who are truly saddened and angry about the church. The emotions of both survivors and the faithful were clearly evident and, as a result, important questions that many of us hoped to hear were not asked, out of respect for the speakers, as well as the long hours of the evening.
My concerns include the following: The diocese has set up a survivor compensation program that is scheduled to be in effect until this June. While I assume the time limitation is to try to bring closure as quickly as possible, I also assume it is to limit cost exposure. It is important for the Catholics within the diocese to understand the financial aspects of this program, from timing to the total projected cost.
Gainer has stated the goal is “to do all we can to provide compensation to survivors without asking our parishioners to contribute.” We all need to understand the financial risks.
The bishop is clear in his claim that the Diocese of Harrisburg wants what is best for the victims/survivors, yet he is opposed to state legislative actions that would expand the civil statute of limitations. While Gainer supports reforming the civil statute of limitation for future cases, he explained his opposition to proposed legislation as needing to protect funding for the missions of the church.
During this conversation, the language seemed to me to be somewhat insincere. It seems to me that the diocese should just face the reality publicly and state it is trying to avoid potential bankruptcy. As one commentator stated, “Jesus gave up everything. Why is the church so afraid to do the same?”
I appreciate Gainer stating that homosexuality is not the cause of the sexual abuse crisis within the church (and research supports him on this).
There has been a common theme espoused by both church leadership and lay people that the church abuse problems have been linked to gay priests. In fact, Gainer’s explanation of celibacy (the renunciation of the right to marry), in my opinion, left open the door for the training of priests despite their sexual orientation. I believe the bishop should also address how diocesan leadership might lead the discussion to widen the aperture for others (married men, women) to seek holy orders.
In an effort at maximum transparency, the diocese states that any priest with a credible allegation of abuse is permanently removed from ministry. Where the safety of children is concerned, this is a wise approach. Alleged abusers should get due process, however. Had cases been referred in the past to civil authorities, as the bishop assures us they are now, alleged offenders may have gotten speedy trials to press their claims of innocence. As Americans as well as Catholics, we believe in justice for all.
The Roman Catholic Church here in Lancaster continues to be a vibrant and diverse community committed to its mission of being a present and active church made up of people proclaiming the goodness of God. As we move through this crisis of abuse, let’s make sure we ask the difficult questions and chart a future that ensures such risks are mitigated. Now is the time for change. Let’s hope the diocese, and the Vatican, embrace the opportunity.
David E. Wood is a Manheim Township resident who has written for LNP Opinion on military matters. He is a member of St. Anne Catholic Church.
Father David H. Luck allegedly raped one boy and molested another, according to findings in a Pennsylvania grand jury report.
He reportedly told people that he fantasized about sex with boys and that he was a pedophile.
The Diocese of Harrisburg removed him from ministry in 1990.
But for nearly 24 years after that, a York Daily Record investigation has revealed, York County hired him to work with some of the area's most vulnerable residents.
Reached at his home recently, Luck declined to discuss the past allegations or his work with the county. That work typically involves direct contact with many people who have mental disabilities.
County officials say they were unaware of his history until August when Luck's name appeared among 301 priests named in a Pennsylvania grand jury report. He was terminated about a month later.
The diocese and Roman Catholic Church concealed the allegations against him in secret archives for decades.
The family of a 15-year-old boy who said he was raped by Luck went to police, according to the grand jury report. A document from 1996 said the diocese would cooperate if it was contacted by police about Luck, but Luck was never criminally charged and diocese officials never reported the allegations.
Hiding the allegations against him ensured Luck would never appear on a Megan’s Law list or have any trouble passing a background check for child sexual abuse, although he was accused of abusing two boys.
Even so, it took the county 21 years to run any kind of background check on Luck, who is now 58 years old. The county didn't search state and federal records until 2015, when state child safety laws changed and required it.
Luck was hired by York County on Jan. 18, 1994, as a caseworker in the Mental Health/Intellectual and Development Disabilities section of the Human Services department.
He was terminated on Sept. 21, 2018, about a month after the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released. The county has not specified the reason for his termination.
“His employment separation was involuntary,” said county spokesman Mark Walters. “There is currently an outstanding grievance case between David Luck and the county, so regarding his involuntary separation, we won’t comment further.”
It remains unclear what the county knew in the 1990s when it hired Luck and how much it tried to learn about his past.
The grand jury report revealed that “a mental health agency” in 1996 asked the Diocese of Harrisburg for a reference. In a memo dated July 15, 1996, the Rev. Paul Helwig told Bishop Nicholas Dattilo the diocese “received a standard form, but instead of responding to the questions on the form, I wrote a letter and stated that, 'Because of conduct unbefitting a minister
of the Church, David was relieved of his duties and does not have authorization to present himself or work as a priest.'"
There are no records that indicate the mental health agency followed up to ask what kind of conduct was unbefitting of a minister of the church or why he was relieved of his duties during a time when the church rarely removed priests, even for abuse.
What that mental health agency didn’t know was that Luck was accused of raping a 15-year-old boy and fondling an 11-year-old boy in the late 1980s.
Luck was a deacon at St. Paul the Apostle in Annville during the summer of 1986 and spring of 1987. He was later a priest at St. Joseph in Mechanicsburg from June 1987 to January 1989, according to diocese records and the grand jury report.
Days before Christmas in December 1988, a family told their local priest that Luck molested their sons while he was still a deacon at St. Paul the Apostle. That local priest told Bishop William Keeler, who in February 1989 sent Luck to St. Luke’s Institute to be evaluated at the Maryland treatment center for priests and religious clergy.
While at the institute, Luck sent a letter to seventh graders at his local school and told them he couldn’t wait to see them again, according to the grand jury report.
St. Luke’s diagnosed Luck with “Paraphilia, a sexual deviation,” the grand jury report said. People diagnosed with paraphilia are, by definition, sexual deviates with intense attractions to fetishes and extreme or dangerous activities.
“Luck admitted to fantasizing about sex with boys, fondling and touching them, and performing mutual fellatio with them,” the grand jury report said, citing diocese records.
St. Luke's recommendation was that Luck should not be in ministry around children or adolescents, and “Luck began writing letters to other dioceses around the country asking to be allowed to minister,” the grand jury report said.
Bishop Dattilo, who was installed in January 1990, suspended Luck in May 1990. Luck fought the suspension for 15 years until the Catholic church formally defrocked him in 2005.
In October 1990, a handwritten letter was sent to Dattilo, telling him that in September of that year, Luck said, “I am a pedophile” to the Rev. McGovern and another person, who was not named in the grand jury report.
Luck was told not to have any contact with the victims, but “shortly thereafter, Luck approached one of the victims at a parish festival,” the grand jury report said.
None of those details were made publicly available until August when the grand jury report was released.
But even if Luck had a record, the county wouldn’t have known about it until 21 years after he was hired and the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal prompted changes in state law.
“The county conducted FBI, state police and child abuse clearance checks in 2015 after the law change from the Sandusky case. They indicated no record,” Walters said.
Luck’s neighbors on Carl Street in York said they were also unaware of his history. One neighbor said she searched the Megan’s Law website before moving to the neighborhood and didn’t see any child abusers on their street, which is a short walk to playgrounds and Kiwanis Lake.
People who live next door and across the street from Luck have children. They were unaware of his history. by subscribing for full access.
And Luck isn’t answering questions about the accusations against him.
When a reporter knocked on his door and started to ask questions, he at first denied his identity. When the reporter told him he looked exactly like several photos of David Luck, he said, “Thank you.”
When the reporter asked him about being a priest, he said he did not want to talk about it.
When a reporter asked him about working for the county, he said he did not want to talk about it.
And he would not say where he’s working now.
By Jenny Wagner
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on Thursday announced a list of communities where it will conduct exposure assessments for the toxic chemicals PFAS. Communities in Bucks and Montgomery counties were not included, but a local environmental organization representing residents is not concerned that it will affect their chances of being selected for a nationwide health study.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on Thursday announced a list of eight communities across the country where it will examine exposures to PFAS, “laying the groundwork” for a nationwide health study.
Communities in Bucks and Montgomery counties that have been affected by the toxic chemicals were not on the list. However, the agency, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the exposure assessments will build on the results of a Pennsylvania Department of Health blood testing pilot program conducted in Horsham, Warrington and Warminster last year, as well as one in New York.
The agency has said the exposure assessments will be among the “selection criteria” for communities to be chosen for the nationwide health study, but they will not be a “prerequisite.”
For that reason, Joanne Stanton, a Warminster native who co-founded the local environmental organization Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water representing area communities, said she was not concerned about their chances of being selected for the nationwide health study.
“The exposure assessment is important, but ... we already had the (Pennsylvania) Department of Health study,” Stanton said.
The nationwide health study , which must be completed by about 2024, will examine whether exposures to PFAS actually caused health effects. Some studies have linked the chemicals to health effects such as high cholesterol, immunodeficiencies and some cancers.
The agency said it currently is testing the protocol for the nationwide health study in communities in New Hampshire.
The exposure assessments are expected to begin this year and continue through next year. All of the communities are near current or former military installations and were affected by PFAS in drinking water. Other factors included the levels and length of exposures and how many people might have been affected.
The communities are:
Residents will be selected randomly to participate in blood and urine testing to determine the levels of chemicals in their bodies and the results will provide them with information about their exposures.
Agency officials said the information will benefit residents in other communities, as well.
“The lessons learned can also be applied to communities facing similar PFAS drinking water exposures. This will serve as a foundation for future studies evaluating the impact of PFAS exposure on human health,” said Patrick Breysse, director of the agency and the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.
The agency also said it will explore conducting exposure assessments in additional communities in the future.
Delaware County on Thursday filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to join a lawsuit filed by area residents against the owners of the controversial Mariner East pipelines.
If granted, the motion to intervene would allow lawyers for the county to present evidence, call or cross-examine witnesses, and file briefs in the case brought by seven residents of Delaware and Chester Counties against Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners.
The formal complaint by the residents alleges numerous safety risks associated with the Mariner East pipelines, which are part of a multibillion-dollar effort to bring natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas region in Western Pennsylvania to the Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook and elsewhere.
In December, an administrative law judge denied an emergency request by the residents to halt operations of the pipelines because of safety concerns. That decision was unanimously upheld by the PUC last month. The residents’ original lawsuit is proceeding.
In its petition, Delaware County stated: “Sunoco’s lack of adequate emergency planning and public awareness directly affects the ability of Delaware County to devise and implement an emergency evacuation plan. Delaware County will be irreparably harmed if Sunoco does not ensure the safety and reasonableness of facilities located within Delaware County."
Several school districts, townships, and a homeowners association already have joined the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Mariner East 1 has been operational for several years. Mariner East 2 began service in late December, and Mariner East 2X is expected to be completed later this year.
By Mike Butler
A recent editorial gave the false impression that new interstate natural gas pipelines like the PennEast project are unsafe.
Unfortunately, it was written by state legislators who should know better than to push misleading information from activist groups who oppose all forms of energy development.
The reality is we need energy infrastructure to keep the lights on and rates affordable for neighbors and friends who already have a difficult time making ends meet.
Let’s review with the facts.
Over 99 percent of the energy moved through pipeline systems safely reaches its destination every day. This safety is due to rigorous federal protection, high operating standards and a skilled workforce who build and maintain this infrastructure with around-the-clock digital technology and inspections.
National building trades — many of whom are in New Jersey and Pennsylvania — provide exceptional training programs requiring precision and a commitment to safety. And our nation’s pipeline system is only getting safer. Since 1990, releases from interstate natural gas pipelines are down 94 percent.
All companies should be held to high safety standards and provide maximum protection for the environment. Multiple independent safety reviews on the PennEast pipeline by federal regulators, including those under the Obama Administration, have found the project to be safe and in the public interest. These determinations have been held up by a federal court and no less than three separate agencies, including the state of Pennsylvania.
Multiple independent safety reviews on the PennEast pipeline -- a 120-mile underground natural gas pipeline connecting Pennington in Mercer County to northeastern Pennsylvania -- by federal regulators, including those under the Obama Administration, have found the project to be safe and in the public interest. These determinations have been held up by a federal court and no less than three separate agencies, including the state of Pennsylvania.
Almost half the project route will be located adjacent to existing utility right-of-ways like overhead power lines. There’s no need to create a new patchwork of additional construction overlays designed only to halt development.
Nearly three-quarters of Garden State residents depend on natural gas to power and heat their homes. Had the PennEast project been in place last winter, households would’ve saved $435 million in lower home-heating costs.
It’s time the public heard the truth about pipelines and demand more from their officials. Stop the fear mongering and let’s work together for balanced solutions that benefit everyone statewide. Pipelines can help us enjoy a more affordable and cleaner energy future.
Mike Butler is the Mid-Atlantic director of the Consumer Energy Alliance , a national organization that advocates for sensible energy policies for consumers.
Binghui Huang Of The Morning Call
The Pennsylvania Health Department is offering free lead testing Saturday to Palmerton residents after a federal study showed higher-than-acceptable lead levels in the air.
The federal agency tasked with monitoring lead levels in Palmerton released its findings last summer. After the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s finding, the state Health Department warned Palmerton residents of potentially dangerous lead levels.
“Lead is toxic,” said Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, in a prepared statement this month. “That’s why it’s important for adults and children to have their blood screened to see if you’ve experienced any exposure levels that are not safe. The side effects of lead exposure can be dangerous, even fatal.”
The high lead levels were found in 2015 within three miles of the American Zinc Recycling Corp., which recycles metals, batteries and other industrial waste. Workers there had elevated blood lead levels in recent years, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Calls to the company were not returned Thursday.
For most of the 20th century, Palmerton was home to a New Jersey Zinc Co. smelting operation, which built up the Carbon County borough and contaminated it.
Zinc smelting ended in 1980 because of declining demand as well as increasing environmental concerns.
Industrial operations in Palmerton left 33 million tons of rocky waste stretching nearly 3 miles and defoliated thousands of acres on Blue Mountain, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1983, the federal government designated Palmerton a superfund site requiring extensive clean up.
From 2013 to 2015, federal data showed that lead levels in Palmerton were higher than acceptable in a three-month period. More recent data have not yet been released.
Those results aren’t conclusive and don’t show a clear pattern, said Rodger Danielson, Palmerton borough manager. However, he stressed that people should take advantage of free screening for potential health problems.
Lead can be found in air, soil and water, as well as in products such as paint. People can build up dangerous levels of lead through drinking contaminated water, eating food grown in contaminated soil and breathing in lead dust and fumes.
Pregnant women are among the most at risk of developing serious health problems from lead, such as miscarriages and premature births. And lead puts children at higher risk of learning and developmental problems. Adults exposed to too much lead can suffer high blood pressure and kidney damage.
It’s unclear if blood lead levels in children in Palmerton are higher than the state average because the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry does not have an adequate sample size from the borough’s children.
Health workers will conduct the tests at Palmerton Area Junior High School from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Residents can pre-register at 877-PA-HEALTH. Walk-ins are also welcome.
TESTING FOR LEAD
The Pennsylvania Health Department is offering free screenings in Palmerton this weekend.
Where: Palmerton Area Junior High School, 3529 Fireline Road
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
School district, Erie Water Works searching for cause of elevated levels in water at Emerson-Gridley.
Lead levels found in the water at the Erie School District’s Emerson-Gridley school building exceed safe levels, and the district and Erie Water Works continue to investigate as the 300 students at the alternative-education school drink bottled water.
But a top local public-health official said the lead levels at Emerson-Gridley are not high enough to pose an immediate risk to people’s health unless someone drank an extraordinary amount of water from a source at the school, such as a drinking fountain.
“Lead can pose an immediate health problem but not in doses at that level,” said Charlotte Berringer, R.N., director of community health at the Erie County Department of Health. “You would have to drink a lot of water, like seven days a week for five years, before you might have an issue.”
Still, Berringer said the level needs to be lowered so that it doesn’t affect people’s long-term health. The Erie School District on Wednesday started federally required remedial measures after test results showed the elevated lead levels.
The tests for Emerson-Gridley showed lead levels of 15.9 parts per billion, above the 15 parts per billion that the Environmental Protection Agency lists as an “action level.”
The school district ordered the tests under new state law, Act 39, that says school districts must test water in their schools for lead annually or explain at a public meeting why the district decided not to do tests. The law went into effect for the 2018-19 academic year.
The General Assembly passed the law in June in response to the crisis over high lead levels in the public water system in Flint, Michigan. The Erie School District is not known to have tested for lead in its water previously, Superintendent Brian Polito said.
No other school districts in Erie and Crawford counties reported problems with lead levels in drinking water, according to those that responded to requests for information from the Erie Times-News on Thursday.
The districts said tests detected no elevated lead levels or the districts said they have yet to test for lead under Act 39, which the General Assembly passed in June. The law requires annual lead testing starting in the 2018-19 year if a district chooses to test for lead. Districts that do not conduct tests must explain why in a public session.
In Erie County, which has 13 school districts, Fort LeBoeuf, General McLane, Iroquois, Millcreek, Union City and Wattsburg said tests showed no problems. North East said it will test in April under Act 39. Several of the districts said they had tested for lead previously and said they will continue to do so.
In Crawford County, which has four school districts, Titusville said tests showed no problems and Penncrest said tests showed no problems with more tests to come.
On Wednesday, the Erie School District temporarily shut off water to the 114-year-old Emerson-Gridley building, shipped in bottled water and arranged with Erie Water Works to do joint testing of more water samples on Feb. 27, said Neal Brokman, the 11,000-student school district’s executive director of operations.
The school’s drinking fountains remain turned off, but water is on for restroom use. Brokman said Emerson-Gridley, whose students range from preschoolers as young as 3 to high school students, saw no drop in attendance on Thursday. The school district is not recommending
Emerson-Gridley students get tested for lead because the detected level is “only slightly higher than the EPA recommended action level,” Brokman said.
The district’s only focus is on Emerson-Gridley. The tests for the district’s 15 other school buildings all showed lead levels far below the threshold of 5 parts per billion, with some samples turning up no lead, said Eric Seibert, the school district’s director of facilities and maintenance.
“We are doing everything we can to protect the kids,” Seibert said.
Erie Water Works’ sampling of its water showed no lead levels above the 15 parts per billion at any of its 55 sample collection sites, according to the system’s water quality report for 2017, the latest available. Corrosion of residential and commercial plumbing systems typically causes lead contamination, according to the water system.
Erie Water Works CEO Paul Vojtek said the Emerson-Gridley case is the first he knows of in which the Water Works has been unable to pinpoint the source, such as a faulty spigot, of an elevated lead level. The Erie School District’s water samples at Emerson-Gridley were drawn from sources near where the water enters the building. Water flows into the building through a cast-iron pipe dating to 1914, the district said.
“Our preliminary assessment indicates the contaminant may be housed in the infrastructure outside of the building,” the Erie School District said in announcing the problems at Emerson-Gridley on Wednesday.
But Vojtek said Erie Water Works since the early 1990s has added phosphate to the water supply, which is drawn from Lake Erie. The phosphate has coated the inside of the water supply pipes, sealing off any lead contamination, Vojtek said. Along with the school district, the Water Works is exploring the possibility of issues with the original samples from Emerson-Gridley, Vojtek said.
“That is why we want to take a few extra samples,” he said.
Erie County continues to have a health problem with lead poisoning. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported that 74 Erie County children younger than 6 had levels of lead in their blood at or above 10 micrograms per deciliter in 2017.
The number represents 0.4 percent of the county’s total population of children that age, which exceeds the state percentage of 0.25.
“The county’s number is not surprising due to the high percentage of houses we have that were built before lead paint was banned (in 1978),” said Berringer, of the Erie County Department of Health. “Ingesting lead paint chips is the main cause for lead poisoning.”
Schools are not a prime source for lead paint chips, Berringer said. The ones built before 1978 have been renovated and maintained so that any remaining lead paint is properly covered with coats of other types of paint. Emerson-Gridley has been renovated over the years. The most recent renovation was in 2002.
Lead poisoning is a serious health concern for toddlers and preschoolers, whose brains are rapidly developing and more sensitive to lead toxicity. It can affect older children and adults, too, Berringer said.
“The initial stages of lead poisoning don’t feature any symptoms, so if you think you might have it, I recommend contacting your medical provider and scheduling a blood test to find out the level,” Berringer said. “If there are any pregnant women working in the building,” she said of Emerson-Gridley, “I would suggest they contact their obstetrician.”
David Bruce can be reached at 870-1736 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNbruce .
Ed Palattella can be reached at 870-1813 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNpalattella .
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
We’ll start this final day of the working week with a civics lesson with practical implications.
A federal judge in Philadelphia has dismissed a lawsuit brought by two Keystone State school kids who were trying to stop President Donald Trump’s rollback of Obama-era climate change policies, Reuters reports.
And while he was at it, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond, a George W. Bush appointee, also heaped scorn on an Oregon judge who allowed a similar case to go forward, Politico reports . The boys were joined in their case by the very adult Clean Air Council of Philadelphia.
Diamond didn’t agree with arguments by the kids, two boys who were 7 and 11 when the case was filed in 2017, that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the due process right to a “life-sustaining climate system,” Reuters reported.
While the current administration may make some among us break out in hives, Diamond also ruled that the boys couldn’t trace their severe asthma to Trump White House policies.
That meant, in turn, that they didn’t have the standing to sue Trump, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, ex-EPA boss Scott Pruitt and other defendants named in the case, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the Oregon judge, Diamond wrote in his Tuesday ruling, “certainly contravened or ignored longstanding authority” and recognized a right “without apparent limit,” when she allowed her case to go forward, Politico reported.
An important civics lesson, then: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And, like real estate, that victory can occasionally come down to location, location, location.
Hunting, fishing license fee decision returns to state legislature
Neither the Pennsylvania state treasury nor legislature provide funding for the Game and Fish and Boat commissions, but lawmakers set hunting and fishing license fees. One of the sticking points in granting a license fee increase, or authority to set their own license fees, has been a demand by some legislators that it apply to both agencies. That’s about to change.
During separate seminars held at the recent Allegheny Outdoors, Sport and Travel Show in Monroeville, the executive directors of both state agencies said they’ve been told by lawmakers that the logjam has been broken.
Byran Burhans of the Game Commission said licensing at the wildlife management agencies will be regulated by separate laws. An ongoing audit of the Game Commission by the state auditor general will need to be completed before legislators vote on that agency’s license fee structure.
Three months into the job, Fish and Boat executive director Tim Schaeffer said a decision on legislative control of license fees or agency control is imminent.
“I’m confident that we’re going to get a bill passed, maybe as soon as March,” he said.
More news from the outdoors expo:
Mr. Burhans said the Game Commission and legislators are working to resolve which Sundays would be affected by the pending Sunday hunting bill. The proposal, awaiting a vote in the state Senate, would extend Sunday hunting privileges to three or four Sundays per year.
Mr. Shaeffer said lawmakers are also considering whether to apply equal fines and other consequences for boating under the influence of alcohol as for DUI offenses.
Brent McNeal, a forester with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, was presented the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Joe Kurz Wildlife Manager of the Year Award for his work on behalf of wild turkeys and wildlife habitat management.
John Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org.
95-year controversy over Pennsylvania’s largest muskie
Pennsylvania’s state muskellunge record has stood for nearly 100 years, but not without controversy.
In 1924, Lewis Walker Jr. of Meadville reported catching a 59-inch muskellunge weighing 54 pounds, 3 ounces in Conneaut Lake, Crawford County. A photo shows Mr. Walker with a muskie that seems to be nearly as long as he was tall.
Years later, he wrote that he hooked the fish while trolling an 8-inch chub with a cane pole spooled with 42-pound line and a leader made of picture wire.
“Finally, a half-hour or more after I had hooked the fish, it came to the top of the water for the first time about 60 feet away from the boat,” he wrote. “I will have to admit frankly that when I saw what I had on the end of the line, I did have a few moments of buck fever, even after all my years of catching muskies. It looked as big as the boat!”
Though it was apparently the biggest fish ever caught in Pennsylvania, its size was never certified. Most state records weren’t independently verified in those days. An attempt to verify Mr. Walker’s claim, is the source of the continuing controversy.
Mr. Walker had the mammoth muskie stuffed, mounted and displayed at the Fish and Boat Commission’s Linesville fish hatchery, now called the Pymatuning Wildlife Learning Center. The mount was subsequently stolen and recovered, but it was damaged before being returned to the Learning Center.
In 1984, fisheries biologists surveying Allegheny Reservoir in Warren County discovered a massive muskie that had become tangled in a gill net and died. At 54⅝ inches and 53 pounds, the Kinzua Giant is generally accepted as the state’s second largest muskellunge, although it was not caught with a rod and reel and is not in line for the record. It, too, was mounted and displayed at Linesville beside Mr. Walker’s catch.
Some folks says the Kinzua Giant appears to be fatter than Mr. Walker’s fish. Others say damage to the earlier mount makes it look smaller. Debate continues about the uncertified state record. To put Mr. Walker’s catch in perspective, Fish and Boat reported that the five largest angler-caught muskies registered in Pennsylvania in 2018 ranged from 41½ inches to 52 inches in length and weighed from 18½ pounds to 40½ pounds.
Want to learn more about muskellunge? Western Pennsylvania Muskie Max Plus will be at Printscape Arena at Southpointe, 114 Southpointe Blvd., Canonsburg. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. March 2 and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. March 3. Details at muskiemax.com and 724-758-2701.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, email@example.com.
Parents responsible for most fatal and near-fatal child abuse
By John Finnerty firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISBURG — Parents are responsible for the majority of fatal or near-fatal child abuse cases, a state analysis released Thursday showed.
In 71 percent of the Pennsylvania abuse fatalities studied, one of the child’s parents committed the crime. The report also found that moms were blamed for fatal abuse twice as often as dads and that 83 percent of the victimized children were under the age of five.
“These are our little ones. They suffered from violence acts committed by their parents, the people they trusted most,” said Jean O’Connell Jenkins, Quality Improvement Administrator, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, who was a member of the team that completed the analysis.
In almost every case, the review found, someone in the community was aware of problems in the family before the child was harmed, said Amy Grippi, chief of staff in the state Department of Human Services’ Office of Children, Youth and Families.
“In 94 percent of the cases, the family was known” to be having problems by people in social service organizations or the school system, Grippi said.
That’s why the report concluded that child abuse should be considered a public health problem that requires collaborate partnerships and strengthened prevention efforts, she said.
Other key findings:
Almost half of the victims were under the age of one.
Girls are more likely to be victims of abuse, boys were more likely to be killed. Girls were victims in 56 percent of the 3,350 abuse cases substantiated by the state’s Child Protective Services in the period covered by the study. Boys were the victims in 58 percent of the 82 deaths analyzed in the studies and 58 percent of the 138 “near-fatal” abuse, according to the report.
Pennsylvania saw a slightly higher percentage than the national average of fatal abuse by paramours of the child's parents, the report found. In Pennsylvania, spousal paramours were perpetrators in 7 percent, while nationally, paramours only account for 4 percent.
“We must learn from past child fatalities and near-fatalities that resulted from abuse so we are best prepared to understand child abuse and protect children around Pennsylvania,” Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said in releasing the report. “We will not accept the notion that there is nothing we could to do prevent abuse”
The review examined abuse cases from 2015 and 2016. A similar analysis of cases from 2017 is ongoing, Jenkins said.
The report offered a variety of recommendations including:
Establishing regional abuse review teams so that areas with fewer incidents can share expert resources;
Researching effectiveness of existing supports like crisis hotlines, text-lines, and social media resources to evaluate if such resources should be expanded;
Providing more resources for parents on healthy parenting at all stages of a child’s life;
Evaluating and enhancing policies pertaining to child abuse and neglect investigations, when to consult with a medical professional, and screening guidelines for county children and youth agencies.
You don’t appreciate the enormity of the Lehigh Tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike until you are standing just outside the entrance, at the base of the Kittatinny Mountain.
The tunnel swallows 30,000 cars and trucks a day that zip into tight, darkened quarters where there is little room for error. Drivers are counting on each other to behave so everyone makes it through. They’re also counting on the tunnel to be maintained for a safe journey.
That hasn’t always happened, which is why I was standing at the tunnel mouth Thursday morning. It was the one-year anniversary of a freak fatal accident, and I was there to see what changes had been made to make the tunnel safer .
Last Feb. 21, 70-year-old Howard Sexton III died when a pipe broke loose from the ceiling of the southbound tunnel, smashed through his truck’s windshield and struck him in the head.
That’s something no driver ever should have to fear happening .
The metal pipe was a conduit holding wires for the tunnel’s lights and ventilation fans. It was mounted directly above traffic — in hindsight, not a wise decision. What caused it to fall remains under investigation, though it’s obvious the support failed. That’s something the Turnpike knew was happening elsewhere in the tunnel based on an inspection two years prior that found bent and missing supports.
Things are different now.
The old metal conduits, original equipment in the southbound tunnel that opened in 1991, are gone. They have been replaced with fiberglass ones. Those pipes no longer are directly above traffic. They’ve been moved to a lower point on the sides.
Also, new lights are brighter, making it easier for drivers to see.
Large ventilation fans still remain above traffic, though they are being refurbished.
“The materials that are in the tunnel now are going to have a much different shelf life because they’re much newer and using modern manufacturing techniques and materials,” Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo told me Thursday after the tour.
The renovations had been planned prior to Sexton’s death. But after the accident, the Turnpike expedited work in the southbound tunnel, wrapping it up by late October. Work on the northbound tunnel is expected to be finished next month.
The Turnpike is limited in where it can put the conduits for the southbound tunnel because it is unlike any other tunnel on the system. The northbound Lehigh Tunnel and both sides of the other four tunnels have their largest conduits in a space, known as a plenum, above the tunnel ceiling. But there is no plenum above the southbound tunnel, so the conduits must be inside the tunnel.
What’s concerning, as I’ve written about before, is that prior to Sexton’s death, the Turnpike knew some conduits were in poor shape on the walls and ceiling of the southbound tunnel.
After the accident, I used the state Right-to-Know Law to obtain a copy of the latest federally required inspection of the tunnel, done in 2016. I learned that inspectors found missing and bent conduit supports, corroding conduits and separating conduits.
The inspection report didn’t identify where all of those conduits were, but it noted two deficiencies on the large ceiling conduit, which extended nearly the length of the almost mile-
long tunnel, which has one end in Carbon County and the other in Lehigh County. Turnpike officials have told me those deficiencies were not on the section that hit Sexton’s truck.
The National Transportation Safety Board is probing Sexton’s death, and it cited the 2016 inspection in its preliminary report on the accident in May, noting the previous finding of “evidence of corrosion on multiple steel support straps” that attach the conduit to the ceiling.
The NTSB’s final report is expected to go into more detail, and could include safety recommendations.
The agency’s involvement is significant. It doesn’t look into routine accidents, focusing on those that could yield information to make the nation’s transportation system safer. Spokesman Keith Holloway told me investigations typically take 12 to 18 months, and this one is at least four or five months from being completed.
He said the partial government shutdown delayed investigations.
Sexton was from Gloucester County, N.J. He was driving a load of furniture from Raymour & Flanigan at the time of his death. The Turnpike is negotiating a settlement with his family, DeFebo told me Thursday.
It’s important not to forget what happened to him. While it’s good to see that changes have been made since his death, the Turnpike must be vigilant to make sure an accident like that can never happen again.
Paul Muschick’s columns are published Monday through Friday at themorningcall.com and Sunday, Wednesday and Friday in The Morning Call. Follow me on Facebook at PaulMuschickColumns , Twitter @mcwatchdog and themorningcall.com/muschick .
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
The commission in charge of investigating civil rights violations in Pennsylvania will host at least one meeting in Carlisle after police found fliers seemingly distributed by the Ku Klux Klan.
Carlisle Police said in a Feb. 2 tweet they “were made aware of malicious /unsolicited flyers being passed out.” A photo of the flier, shared by Councilman Sean Crampsie, features the hate group’s name and calls for “racial purity.”
Carlisle Chief Taro D. Landis told the Capital-Star, as of Feb. 21, “There is no new information about the [fliers].”
Carlisle Police were made aware of malicious /unsolicited flyers being passed out today. We are attempting to identify those responsible but have received very little info. Anyone with helpful info please contact Carlisle Police at 717-243-5252 or our crimewatch tip line.
The Pa. Human Relations Commission meeting will take place Feb. 28 at 6 p.m. at the YMCA Carlisle. Hope Station, a community empowerment nonprofit, is also co-hosting.
Hope Station Executive Director Safronia Perry said via email the “meeting will be a call to action for the residents.”
“We want people to come prepared to discuss next steps on how this community can work together to fight hate,” she said.
In response to the incident, the Human Relations Commission held several “No Hate in Our State” town hall meetings in the county.
The KKK is just one of 36 hate groups the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked in Pennsylvania last year.
As part of a legal settlement expected to be finalized in March, Pennsylvania’s state prisons will rescind a 6-month-old policy lawyers said made it impossible for them to communicate confidentially with clients.
The controversial policy, under which legal mail was intercepted, photocopied and then destroyed, had been announced last September as one of a series of new security measures — many of them without precedent in a state prison setting — intended to prevent the smuggling of drugs into the prisons. Four civil rights groups and a state prison inmate had filed suit in federal court seeking an emergency injunction.
Beginning April 6, the prisons will revert to some variation on the previous system, which did not involve photocopying and instead relied on individual attorney-identification numbers to track legal mail.
Bret Grote, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer with the Abolitionist Law Center, said the prisons’ policy of copying legal mail had presented a clear First Amendment violation, effectively prohibiting inmates’ access to the courts.
“For us, it was a problem right from the jump,” he said. “We are pleased that they are now being responsive to the need to protect attorney-client confidentiality and recognize that the photocopying policy was untenable.”
The state Department of Corrections had announced that policy at the end of a two-week-long lockdown, along with other new security protocols it said were needed to prevent drugs, in particular the synthetic cannabinoid K2, from infiltrating the prisons via the mail. Other measures included the diversion of all non-legal mail to a contractor in Florida to be scanned and digitally forwarded under a nearly $16 million, three-year, no-bid contract, and the installation of drone detection devices and body scanners in all prisons. A further policy prohibiting deliveries of books was rolled back in November after advocates protested.
DOC Secretary John Wetzel acknowledged the lawyers’ concerns and said he expected a new policy would address both security and confidentiality.
"The DOC respects the right of attorney-client privilege and recognizes the importance of attorney-client relationships,” said Secretary Wetzel. “At the same time the DOC has a responsibility to ensure that prisons are safe for those who work and live in them. We feel the plan agreed to by the parties meets both of those objectives.”
Over the past six months, lawyers, including the federal public defenders in Pennsylvania, had stopped sending mail to the state prisons altogether, because they believed doing so would constitute a breach of attorney-client privilege.
Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said lawyers had described the situation as “stifling our ability to do our work.”
The ACLU, along with the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project had sought an injunction in federal court. But after just one day of hearings on Tuesday, at the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, they began working toward a settlement instead.
In the run-up to the hearing, the Department of Corrections had fought to keep documents about the policy and what led up to it confidential. Settlement talks began hours before Department of Corrections staff were to testify. The resolution effectively ensures those documents and depositions will remain sealed by the court.
Grote said the settlement will likely be formalized in a few weeks; questions including the recovery of legal fees and an agreement to monitor implementation have not been resolved.
Carrington Keys, a paralegal at the Abolitionist Law Center who has been logging reports from prisoners, said implementation of new policies often varies widely from one prison to the next.
Some inmates described being shackled when they went to collect legal mail. Others reported waiting for hours, only to be told they’d have to return the next day.
“The most delays we heard of were during the lockdown,” he said. “Some people missed [court filing] deadlines because of it.”
It’s unclear how many legal cases have been delayed because of the policy. But Marianne Sawicki, a lawyer based in Huntingdon, Pa., said one of her cases has been stayed because of it. Her concerns with the process included both the violation of confidentiality and the limitations of photocopiers, which are known to jam or skip pages.
“From my point of view, practically speaking, I can’t be sure the men I’m writing to are getting everything,” she said.
Keys said he has also received complaints related to regular incoming mail, which is scanned by St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Smart Communications. He’s received copies of photographs that had been scanned and shrunk down to 16 per page, newspaper pages crunched into a few illegible inches, and reports of mail that’s gone missing or been delivered to the wrong person.
Others noted problems that appeared to arise from the Department of Correction’s new secure book-processing center, which was created after the prohibition on book deliveries was rolled back.
Keir Neuringer, a member of Philadelphia’s Books Through Bars collective, said his group has resumed shipping donated books to prisoners, but it’s unclear how many books are actually reaching inmates and how long they’re taking to get there.
“We are certainly not where we want to be as far as getting books to people in a timely way,” he said.
He said the organization has begun sending out follow-up surveys on book deliveries. Inmates reported a handful of books had been delivered, but many more had never arrived.
DOC spokesperson Amy Worden denied there were problems.
“Book shipments are moving through the security processing center every day and book deliveries are being made at the prisons on a daily basis," she said. "There are cases where books are being returned because they are not properly labeled or have been sent out for drug testing.”
WRITTEN BY STEPHANIE WEAVER
During a lull in court two weeks ago, Judge Paul M. Yatron motioned for me to come to the bench.
The day before, Yatron had resentenced former juvenile lifer Shaun B.P. Winters to 30 years to life for strangling 77-year-old Nora Casani on June 14, 1994. Casani's family wasn't happy with the ruling and told me they believed Winters deserved at least the 35-year minimum prosecutors requested.
Yatron said he was just as unhappy about the situation.
Based on his comments at the sentencing, it made sense. He said parts of Winters' testimony were troublesome, particularly how he called it “an altercation” and claimed he didn't know Casani had died.
But Winters was only convicted of second-degree murder. Back in 1995, he entered a guilty plea to that alone in exchange for prosecutors dropping the other charges.
At the time, it was a guaranteed life sentence, but U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2012 and 2016 said the rubber stamp of mandatory life sentences was unconstitutional.
The higher court set new guidelines for sentencing youth killers moving forward but never provided a road map for the resentencing of the roughly 520 juvenile lifers convicted before 2012.
That's where Yatron, and others, get frustrated.
“The Supreme Court did not, in any way, indicate what is to be done with these matters,” he said. “It was the hope of judges across the commonwealth that the General Assembly act in such a way that would give guidance to our courts.”
Instead, a June 2017 state Supreme Court ruling suggested judges “strongly consider” the new guidelines.
So that's what Yatron did. The guidelines call for at least 35 years for first-degree and 30 years for second-degree murder if 15 and older.
Defense attorney Michael D. Dautrich said he'll likely file an appeal and is surprised there aren't more due to the sentencing inconsistency.
“The way the appeals courts haven't decided this issue about that statue applying to these cases leaves things uncertain,” he said.
In the three years since the ruling, 404 juvenile lifers have been resentenced and 173 of those have been released, according to the state Department of Corrections.
In Berks, there's one left. Edward Goudy was convicted of second-degree murder for serving as a lookout when he was 15 during a 2000 robbery turned murder and has long been the local example of why this change was needed.
I fully expect his sentence will be less than 30 years.
Sarah M. Wojcik Of The Morning Call
When the Tamaqua Area School District implemented the commonwealth’s first policy to arm teachers, leaders at the district knew they would be pioneers.
But now, after facing two lawsuits from teachers and families opposed to this particular answer to school shootings , experts say the district also will be laying the legal groundwork for such policies across the state. The eyes of other school district leaders, elected officials and solicitors are now focused on Schuylkill County.
“This is an extremely important issue,” said John Freund, an attorney with the Bethlehem law firm KingSpry who serves as solicitor for a handful of Lehigh Valley school districts. “We’re advising all of our clients to wait and see what happens here because the outcome is certainly uncertain.”
According to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States, there are 21 states that explicitly give districts, school boards or schools the authority to decide whether weapons are allowed in schools, and nine states that have laws that give school employees permission to possess weapons. In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre in 2018, Florida passed legislation requiring districts to have a “safe-school officer” on staff — be it a police officer, private security or trained, armed employee.
There are no databases that track the number of school districts across the country that have armed staff, but the number is certainly in the hundreds, if not thousands, according to Kenneth Trump, president of the Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm that specializes in increasing school safety.
In Texas alone, where state law gives school boards the authority to arm staff, 303 of the state’s 1,031 districts have armed teachers and staff. But considering that there are upwards of 100,000 districts around the nation, these numbers are still a tiny fraction of the whole.
“There are more school systems doing it today than in the past, yes. But more does not automatically equate to most or even many,” Trump said. “We’ve seen a number of states … expand opportunities to arm staff. That said, the vast majority of superintendents and school boards say thanks, but no thanks.”
Fewer still are the districts where changes have been implemented and then challenged in court. Still, they provide a glimpse of the legal hurdles that may lie ahead for Tamaqua:
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Luke Cornelius, professor of education law at the University of North Florida. “I don’t think people know what they’re getting into with this.”
Cornelius believes the real issue isn’t whether districts have the authority to arm staff, but the liability they may face after an employee discharges a weapon on school grounds. Since the phenomenon is relatively new and school shootings are very rare, this has yet to play out.
“You’re opening a can of worms here and I don’t think anyone is looking too deep into the implications of it,” Cornelius said. “Law, by its nature, is reactive. Which is, in this case, the tragedy of it. What is the liability for a school where a teacher wrongly shoots someone? We won’t know until a teacher wrongly shoots someone.”
Cornelius said the school boards believe they are acting as citizens who have a constitutional right to bear arms for self-defense.
The problem, he said, is that employees are not armed as private citizens, but by a school policy that authorizes them to use deadly force. Even police, who are highly trained in the use of deadly force, face liability issues, Cornelius noted.
The proof is in the myriad civil and criminal cases filed against law enforcement in wrongful death cases, he said. Police departments and municipalities are aware of this risk and often have insurance and savings earmarked for the kind of expensive settlements brought on by such liability disputes. It’s highly unlikely any school district is equipped for such a thing, he said.
“There is a hell of a legal difference between an armed citizen defending oneself as a private citizen and an armed public employee defending with deadly force,” he said. “When it’s part of your job description, you’re not an armed citizen anymore. I guarantee nobody is explaining this to a teacher carrying a weapon.”
Tamaqua and many other districts that moved forward with policies to arm teachers have cited finances as a rationale. District leaders say they cannot afford the $50,000 to $80,000 a year for more school resource officers. But given the liability and litigation risks cropping up, Trump is skeptical that arming staff would be cheaper than hiring trained security or police.
“When you divide the cost of an officer into the total operating budget of a school district, it’s a very small percentage,” he said. “And especially so when you compare that with the potential liability of training a noncommissioned, nonlaw enforcement personnel. I think it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to take that risk.”
Sheriff John Lenhart watched the news unfold in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, and immediately started dialing numbers.
Lenhart could think of no reason why such horror would spare his corner of western Ohio.
“I called up some of the superintendents I was friendly with and said, ‘Let’s get our heads together on Monday and let’s talk about this,’” remembers Lenhart, the sheriff of Shelby County. “I wanted to get a game plan together because I knew we were not prepared for anything even resembling this.”
Those conversations would lay the groundwork for policies to arm teachers and staff in two of the county’s school districts within the year. One of those districts partnering with Shelby County is the Sidney City School District, serving about 3,500 students squarely between Lima and Dayton, Ohio — both cities about 40 minutes away.
Lenhart remembers some pushback from the effort in Sidney City — a few grievances from the teachers union and some statements from the public. But there was no litigation.
“You need to have all the players at the table to hash something out,” Lenhart said of such policies. “You have to have buy-in from the citizens, otherwise you’re not going to have success in anything you do. And you have to your employees working with you.”
Bob Humble, superintendent of Sidney City schools, said authorized staff members do not carry guns, but are only 10 to 15 seconds away from one at any given time.
“I like the fact that there’s less of a chance that something is going to happen here because people know they’re not going to get very far,” Humble said. “Our kids don’t even think about this anymore. This is just another layer of security in our district.”
UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State’s proposed state appropriations for the 2019-2020 school year are level since last year, but the university is set to move forward with several big-budget capital projects.
On Thursday, the Penn State Board of Trustees’ finance, business and capital planning committee approved four large projects that could affect current and prospective students and staff.
For $60.8 million, the East Halls renovations will continue with a second phase — the renovations of both Sproul and Geary halls. The two buildings will have 573 beds in mostly double rooms. Construction of the entire East Halls complex is slated to finish in 2022, with those two buildings set for completion in 2020.
Pending approval from the full board, Penn State’s College of Engineering is getting two new research and teaching facilities, which are tentatively planned to be designed by the Boston architectural firm Payette. The two buildings are the first stage in the 20-year West Campus College of Engineering Master Plan, which was created to keep up with rising engineering enrollments and advances in technology. The master plan includes the construction of a parking lot on West Campus.
A final plan for a new, $65.2 million wastewater treatment plant to serve Penn State will also move forward. The new plant would be able to process 3 million gallons of wastewater a day and would reduce ground water withdrawals by an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 gallons daily, according to Bill Sitzabee, associate vice president for facilities management and planning at Penn State. The current wastewater treatment plant, located in State College Borough, was built in 1913 and last updated more than 60 years ago.
Penn State will also relocate the Applied Research Laboratory Steam Plant, located in Patton Township, to the ARL Energy Science and Power Systems Test Facility in Benner Township. Sitzabee said the relocation is due, in part, to the fact that there is a housing development encroaching on the current research facility location. The relocation project will cost $14.5 million and will support three new ARL research programs worth a combined $620 million.
Though Penn State’s funding level from the state remains the same, Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing a $36.8 million increase for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which provides financial aid for Pennsylvania higher education students. Wolf’s press secretary J.J. Abbott said the governor is proposing, in total, a $50 million general fund increase to support financial assistance for higher education students.
“We must also budget within the realities of what’s likely to be approved by the legislature,” he wrote in an email Thursday.
Zack Moore, Penn State vice president for government and community relations, said the university would continue to lobby the state legislature and Wolf for more appropriations. Penn State President Eric Barron is speaking before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday and March 20 is Advocate Penn State Capital Day, Moore said.
State universities may use retirement bonus to trim payroll
By John Finnerty email@example.com
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education may offer as many as 1,000 employees an early-retirement incentive as the system struggles to rein in costs amid declining enrollment trends, the PASSHE chancellor told lawmakers Thursday.
Chancellor Dan Greenstein said that the system is looking to control costs in part because it can’t afford to continue increasing tuition rate.
“We need to get our tuition under control. Across-the-board tuition increases are pricing our students out of affordable access to a university education,” he said.
Student enrollment across the 14-university State System has declined by almost 18 percent since fall 2010. There were 98,094 students enrolled in the system at the beginning of this academic year, compared to 119,513 in 2010.
Over that period, the number of employees working for the system has dropped about 12.5 percent – as the total number of workers declined from 14,970 to 13,094. Of that, the number of faculty members declined from 7,303 to 6,380, about a 12.6 percent drop.
The average cost to attend a PASSHE school is now $21,682 a year.
Word of the retirement incentive came out as Greenstein made the case to Senate appropriations committee members that the system should get more funding than the amount proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf in his budget address two weeks ago.
Wolf’s proposal would boost funding for the state system by $7 million in 2019-2020. Greenstein said the system would like to get an extra $30.7 million on top of what Wolf suggested, bringing the system’s state funding in the coming year to $505.8 million.
State Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, asked Greenstein to explain what steps the system is taking to “right-size” its employee count.
“That’s an important component when you’re talking about fixing your balance sheet,” Martin said. “That’s a huge obstacle, you face.”
Greenstein said that system officials have begun talking to union groups about the possibility of offering the retirement incentives as one avenue for trying to trim payroll costs.
“We’ve not done everything we can to align our costs with our revenue,” he said.
But Greenstein said there are “several hundred” and perhaps as many as 1,000 university employees who’ve worked long enough to take advantage of a retirement incentive if the system offers one.
It’s not clear how quickly any such incentive would be offered and it's not how quickly the unions would agree to it, Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the State System of Higher Education, said.
“These kinds of discussion can go quickly or can take a long time,” he said.
Martin’s not the only lawmaker concerned about how effectively the state system controls costs as it asks for more money from the Legislature, said state Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, a member of the PASSHE board of trustees.
He said a one-year contract extension given to the faculty union last year carried a $19 million price tag, more than the increase provided to the state system in the 2018-19 budget.
“So, their financial situation got worse,” because of that deal, Roae said.
Greenstein, who was just named chancellor in the fall, said that the budget increase is necessary to give the system momentum as it prepares to roll out a system redesign in 2020.
That redesign will do things like increase attention on helping students stay in school, ensure that the universities are providing education to meet the region’s workforce needs and do more to attract adults who had previously started college but didn’t graduate, Greenstein said.
Pitt announces plan to match Pell Grants for undergraduates
The University of Pittsburgh will match Pell Grant awards for all undergraduate students starting this fall as part of a major effort unveiled Friday to better meet financial need and curb student debt.
The announcement came during a board of trustees meeting at the university’s Oakland campus.
Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the effort is important — in meeting its mission of providing a viable financial path to a degree and in competing with elite institutions that already are doing more to reduce need.
Pell Grants provide financial aid to low-income undergraduate to some post-baccalaureate students. The maximum Pell Grant for the 2018–19 award year was $6,095. The amount an individual student may receive depends on a variety of factors. But Pell Grants, unlike student loans, do not have to be paid back.
“So many of our competitors are moving forward, while we’re standing still,” Mr. Gallagher said, referring to reducing unmet need.
The university enrolls roughly 5,000 students who receive Pell Grants, and the average grant awarded is $4,500.
The initial cost to the university will be an estimated $25 million, according to the chancellor.
The program, dubbed the “Pitt Success Pell Match,” applies to the main Oakland campus and Pitt’s branches at Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville.
Mr. Gallagher said the announcement comes as Pitt is reporting strong applicant totals for the fall. However, he said growing selectivity does not by itself achieve its mission of providing all qualified applicants access to higher education.
This move and earlier debt reduction programs announced at Pitt including “Panthers Forward” — in which seniors receive $5,000 in federal student debt offset with no obligation to pay it back but instead “pay it forward” to future seniors — are part of a longer-term Pitt strategic initiative.
This story will be updated.
Voting system expo planned at courthouse
WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County residents will get a chance to check out the future of voting in the county next week.
The county bureau of elections will hold a voting system expo at the county courthouse from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The county plans to purchase new electronic voting machines this year, to comply with a state mandate. The new voting machines, estimated to cost about $4 million, will provide a “paper trail” for added security.
The public is invited to attend and participate, county elections director Marisa Crispell said earlier this month.
Five prospective vendors will demonstrate their voting systems and enhanced security features at the expo.
They are Clear Ballot Group, Dominion Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic and Unisyn Voting Solutions.
Election Systems & Software supplied the voting machines the county has used for more than 10 years, as well as an electronic poll book system the county purchased last year.
The company is at the center of a controversy involving Crispell’s service on its customer advisory board in 2017. She attended two advisory board meetings, one in Las Vegas, one in Nebraska, for which Election Systems & Software paid her travel expenses.
Several investigations into the matter were launched in December, including one by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who is reviewing the methods by which counties obtain voting equipment. He will announce the results of his investigation today.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org , 570-821-2117
Luzerne County has issued requests for proposals for two projects designed to boost revenue in a challenging budget year.
The county has invited companies to submit proposals to “design, permit, construct and operate billboards” located on county-owned property.
County Manager David Pedri has mentioned the possibility of generating revenue through billboard advertising several times, most recently during his state of the county address at Tuesday’s county council meeting.
The deadline to submit proposals for the billboard project is March 15.
The county is also seeking proposals from banks interested in providing purchasing card services for the county.
The proposal involves the use of procurement cards, or “p-cards,” which are used by companies or government entities as an alternate method to purchase goods and services. The county would pay the bank or financial institution in full for all such purchases, but could receive interest revenue, according to Pedri.
The deadline to submit proposals for the project is April 5.
— ERIC MARK
By Jerry Lynott - email@example.com
WILKES-BARRE — As angry as residents are about shots ringing out in their neighborhoods, so too are the officers patrolling the streets, said city police chief Joseph Coffay.
The almost daily drive-by shootings in the past week dominated the discussion during the city council meeting Thursday night that Coffay attended.
“Those men and women in that building over there (at police headquarters) take this very personally. You know, shots being fired throughout the city. They take it very personally,” Coffay said.
Some officers have even volunteered to work on their own time to make arrests and make people feel safe again, Coffay added.
The police chief assured the audience of approximately 25 people that he has the support of the Pennsylvania State Police and federal law enforcement agencies in an attempt to silence the gunfire.
“If something happens and we have a serious crime, just like these shootings, all I have to do is make a phone call. A phone call, next thing you know I have 15, 20 agents coming down here and that’s what we have. That’s exactly what we have now,” Coffay said in response to a question about getting more outside help and resources.
Since June, 33 guns have been taken off the street, Coffay said.
But resident Jim Burden made it known he’s carrying a gun when he goes out at night. The Marines veteran said he was struck in the back by a pellet while walking his dog and showed council members a photo on his cellphone of what he said was the red mark it left.
“Now when I walk my dog at nighttime, when I take him out at night, I don’t go alone. I take my friend with me (my gun) besides my dog. I’m afraid for my wife, for my grandchild, this is ridiculous,” Burden said.
Rolling Mill Hill resident Linda Joseph told council she wonders if she will be caught in the crossfire while driving her car.
Joseph said she’s heard residents say it’s time to bring in the Pennsylvania National Guard to deal with the situation. “Sounds extreme, but it speaks volumes to the frustration and desperation residents are now feeling,” she said.
In its regular business, council approved:
• A vehicle lease program with Enterprise Fleet Management Inc.
• Zelenkofske Axelrod LLC to audit the city’s 2018 general purpose financial statements at a cost of $59,500.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.
Kevin Duffy Special to The Morning Call
Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong kept coming back to it during his State of the County address for 2019 — taking the politics out of the workings of day-to-day decisions will benefit constituents.
Addressing business leaders Thursday afternoon in the club level suites at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, Armstrong touched on key initiatives included in his second year in the county’s top post, including the refurbishing of the Coplay-Northampton Bridge, upgrades for Cedarbrook Nursing Home along with the county assuming management from Good Shepherd, and a continued commitment to farmland and open space preservation.
But not everything in his speech was positive. Lehigh County faces a projected net loss of $7 million in revenue this year as part of its $506 million budget as a result of the Board of Commissioners opting against administration’s desire of a tax rate of 3.79 mills, choosing instead to maintain it at 3.64 mills, Armstrong said.
Contributing to that is $2 million in salary increases tied to an arbitration loss to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“The next budget, we will have to make some careful decisions,” he said.
A bump in the tax rate to 3.79 mills, he said, would have resulted in a $30 million surplus and no tax increases through 2023.
Bringing commissioners in with department heads at the onset of budget discussions is one change that Armstrong said he would implement, along with presenting them with data from the previous year in a timelier manner.
“I want the commissioners more actively engaged with me — I want them to be a part in creating the budget,” Armstrong said.
The formation of a Citizen’s Advisory Committee to enhance transparency and possibly arrive at better decisions during those discussions is another change that Armstrong said he plans on making.
“We need open government — let them see how decisions are made,” he said.
He also plans to launch an Ethics Oversight Committee so county residents can be certain that “their government is beyond reproach.”
And non-partisan, he repeatedly said.
“Party affiliation does not matter; in the future we need to do a better job of cooperating between parties,” he said.
County leadership needs to “take politics out of decision-making — decisions have to be made on what’s best for the county,” Armstrong said.
He said he also wants to establish term limits for commissioners — 3 terms and 12 years — and restore the county’s Home Rule Charter, which would allow for collective bargaining agreements to be negotiated by the executive branch rather than the legislative branch.
The county is also poised to end its partnership with Good Shepherd and assume sole management of Cedarbrook by the end of the month, and float a $68 million bond toward a planned $78 million renovation, including a new wing.
“We are committed to making our safety net for senior citizens better,” he said.
He pledged to maintain his commitment to farmland preservation — 300 farms countywide ranks fourth in the state — and open space preservation, with 23,000 acres ranking fifth in the state.
He said the refurbishment of the Coplay-Northampton Bridge, now in its second year of a three-year project, is on schedule and within budget. It will be the first in Pennsylvania to use post tension technology and the first, nationwide, to use electronic isolated tendon technology.
“We’re not just doing it, we’re doing it right,” he said.
He said a proposal by Gov. Tom Wolf to increase vehicle registration fees from $37 to $42, with the difference going back to the counties, could result in $2 million in funding for infrastructure improvements, specifically Lehigh’s 44 county-owned bridges.
Armstrong said the bridges are being evaluated to determine which are deficient and would be targeted for repair should the measure pass.
Armstrong’s pledge to take a comprehensive look at infrastructure improvements is sound, said Paul Anthony, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 375.
“I liked his approach; it’s measured, it’s prudent,” he said.
Joseph Lehnert, a financial services agent with New York Life, also came away impressed by what he heard, particularly in regard to politics.
“I thought his whole outlook was exceptional — he’s not looking at what the Democratic priorities are or what the Republican priorities are, he’s looking at what Lehigh County’s priorities are,” Lehnert said.
Kevin Duffy is a freelance writer.
WRITTEN BY KAREN SHUEY
The group pushing for the return of lights above the Berks County Courthouse got some bad news Thursday.
Berks County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt said the board is unlikely to change its mind about keeping the landmark in the dark and that the enormous cost to install a new lighting system is not the only reason.
"The real reason why was not just the exorbitant cost of lighting the courthouse but the notorious radio interference that comes from LED lights and our $63 million emergency radio system," he said. "I know there's been letters to the editor and stuff on social media saying we should relight the courthouse but there needs to be recognition that the emergency radio system is much more important to the safety of people in Berks County."
Barnhardt said the board could potentially revisit the issue if it could get reassurances from a vendor that the lighting system would not interfere with the radio system because that's a gamble the board isn't prepared to take.
For years, lights atop the courthouse provided a weather forecast . Different color combinations corresponded to weather predictions. The colored lights came down in 1995 and were replaced with amber lights, which lit up the courthouse until 2013 when they were removed for roof repairs.
The commissioners decided not to replace the lights during a budget meeting in the fall of 2013 after learning that replacements would cost $72,000 for white lights or $122,000 for multicolored lights.
But that decision has not stopped interest in the issue from spreading over social media.
Russell Cambria started an effort in 2014 to rally support for the lights . He created a Facebook group, "Relight Berks County's Historic Courthouse," and has recently begun contacting public officials again to see if there is still interest in fundraising.
Cambria, who now lives in Nevada, wrote in a letter to the Reading Eagle this week that it is time for the Berks County commissioners to right a wrong. He argued that city skylines act as a billboard drawing new businesses and individuals downtown.
In other news, Commissioner Mark C. Scott urged Reading officials to consider the benefits of turning over the city's water and parking authorities to private operators in light of the recent discovery that a water meter in the county services center has gone unread for decades .
"I'm not sure exactly why that happened," he said. "I'm sure we'll have further discussions, and more research will be forthcoming as to why. I don't think we did anything, however, to conceal our usage."
The unread meter has racked up about $1.5 million in unpaid water and sewerage service, according to RAWA Executive Director Bill Murray. He believes the newly discovered meter for the building was unread for about three decades.
Scott said the issue illustrates a larger problem of the inability of government to provide basic services.
WRITTEN BY KAREN SHUEY
BERKS COUNTY — He's running.
Reversing course from remarks he has made in recent months that he would end his career as Berks County commissioner when his term expires next year, Mark C. Scott told the Reading Eagle Thursday morning that he will seek his seventh term in the post.
"After a long period of reflection I have decided to get back in the race one more time," he said, adding that many residents and several county officials encouraged him to run again.
"I've invested a considerable part of my life in trying to preserve and enhance the quality of life in this county, and I'm concerned about the future on a number of levels," Scott said. "And I will find it difficult to watch poor decisions being made."
Two of the biggest decisions awaiting the next board will be whether to keep Berks Heim, the county-owned nursing home, in local hands and deciding how to finance the renovation of the Berks County Prison.
Scott believes the nursing home could be saved if the unions that represent those who work there modify their contracts to save labor expenses and if the county explores the creation of an endowment using 50 percent of those savings to exclusively benefit the nursing home moving forward.
And he believes hiring a private prison operator would offer savings that are too tempting to ignore.
He said his decision to enter the race is about providing voters with the opportunity to support a candidate who will make rational decisions based on evidence without regard to the political consequences those decisions might have.
"I'm concerned, frankly, that the management of this county has become entirely too political," he said. "On occasion I believe decisions are made on other criteria rather than on merit. I believe there is too much influence from campaign contributions — I've always been concerned about that."
Scott, who acknowledged taking campaign contributions from those who do business with the county in the past, said this time will be different. He promised not to accept contributions from anyone who could benefit from a decision he will be asked to make as a member of the board.
Scott, who has had a contentious relationship with his current colleagues, said he would welcome a fresh face on the board that would bring a different perspective and more business-like approach to the job.
The Douglass Township Republican has served with Republican Christian Y. Leinbach and Democrat Kevin S. Barnhardt since 2008. All three positions are up for election this fall. Leinbach and Barnhardt have announced they will be campaigning for fourth terms.
Republicans Michael Rivera of Bern Township and Joe Rudderow of Maidencreek Township and Democrats Jesse Royer of Spring Township, Michael Morrill of West Reading and Donna Reed of Reading also have announced their candidacies.
Leinbach and Rivera are running as a team to be the new Republican majority in 2020.
Scott said he's running on his own merit and believes that voters can make their own choices based on merit.
Two Democrats and two Republicans will be chosen by voters in the May 21 primary to move on to the general election in the fall where the top three vote-getters will win seats on the board.
The job has a four-year term and comes with an annual salary of $90,260.
Candidate: Mark C. Scott, 67, Douglass Township.
Office: Berks County commissioner
Education: Bachelor's of economics degree from DePauw University in 1973, juris doctorate from Suffolk University Law School in 1979 and financial planning certification from Farleigh Dickinson University
Experience: County commissioner since 1996 and in that capacity serves on several boards. Prior to his election, he served as executive director of the Berks County Solid Waste Authority and as assistant solicitor to the county. His private sector experience includes bank management and entrepreneurship in food distribution.
WRITTEN BY STEPHANIE WEAVER
While Berks County attorneys agree the U.S. Supreme Court's new ruling on forfeiture law is important and necessary, they don't believe it will have a major impact locally.
On Wednesday, the high court issued a unanimous decision that gives property owners the ability to fight police seizures of vehicles and other property that are "grossly disproportionate" to the crime. The justices said the Eighth Amendment's ban on "excessive fines" also applies to state and local agencies, not just the federal government as previously interpreted.
Berks District Attorney John T. Adams said he supports the decision because it helps assure no one is abusing their power to forfeit property, but he doesn't anticipate any change of operations in Berks.
Assistant District Attorney Alisa R. Hobart said that's because the Supreme Court's ruling is largely catching up with what has already been the law in Pennsylvania for roughly 15 years. She said a case in 2003 changed the way such cases are looked at to a value-based analysis to determine if something violates the excessive fines rule.
She said the general rule of thumb is to compare the value of the forfeited property with the maximum permissible fine for the underlying crime.
The Supreme Court ruling came in response to the case of Tyson Timbs of Indiana. Police seized Timbs' $42,000 Land Rover after he was convicted of two drug sales that amounted to $300. Timbs was sentenced to one year of home detention and to pay $1,203 in fines and court costs. The maximum fine for his crime was $10,000.
While the ruling is a win for Timbs, he will still need to argue in court that the seizure was grossly disproportionate to his crime.
Adams stressed that his office doesn't pursue those types of cases and has installed numerous safeguards into its practices to make sure they are not seeking forfeitures that are excessive. He called it an important tool for authorities, but said there are limits to how it is exercised.
He said what concerned him about the Timbs case was that the defendant could show he had bought the Land Rover with his father's life insurance policy, not drug money.
"When we find monies and they can substantiate a legitimate source, we generally do not forfeit those funds," he said.
But the prosecutor said his office has been very successful with its forfeitures.
Adams said nearly all of their forfeitures are related to major drug busts and are to seize cold cash, pointing specifically to the synthetic marijuana ring busted through Operation Empire in 2017. In the case, authorities seized roughly $2.4 million that had been stored in bundles
wrapped in heat-sealed plastic stacked in two self-storage lockers and stashed behind drywall in a home.
That money is then used to purchase equipment for local police departments and given as grants and donations to local organizations, Adams said. He regularly contributes money to Crime Alert Berks from forfeited funds and last year gave $100,000 to the YMCA to aid its drug treatment programs.
"It's a tool that we will continue to pursue because, frankly, we want to take a drug dealer's property so that drug dealer does not obtain the fruits of his crime," he said.
Defense attorney James M. Polyak said that while Adams' office is good at working out contested forfeiture cases, the Supreme Court's ruling is a game-changer. He said authorities in Berks seize countless vehicles and hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for forfeitures.
"Courts must now conduct an Eighth Amendment excessive fines analysis in every civil forfeiture case," Polyak said. "A criminal conviction no longer equals what had been an almost automatic forfeiture of money seized."
Defense attorney Daniel C. Nevins said the unanimous ruling is important because forfeitures have disproportionately impacted lower-income people from the start.
"We've seen people and their family members lose rent money, vehicles and computers or other items under the theory that the property is connected to criminal behavior, when, in fact, it was from legitimate sources," he said. "This ruling does not mean that cash from a drug deal cannot be seized and forfeited.
"However, if the suspected drug dealer drives his mother's Honda to make the delivery, the government should not be able to take that vehicle."
Defense attorney Kevin Feeney is hoping this will lead to even further reform to forfeiture law. He believes treating forfeitures as a civil action is wrong and that they should instead be part of the criminal case against a defendant.
"The police and local DAs are making decisions about taking and using money with very few limits or oversight," he said. "Many people don't know how to contest it or don't have the money to contest the civil matter."
WRITTEN BY ANTHONY OROZCO
READING, PA — The Reading Redevelopment Authority lost a member Thursday morning when Pamela J. Shupp submitted her letter of resignation.
The letter submitted to Mayor Wally Scott says Shupp's role as the executive vice president of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance did not sufficiently meet the state's requirements for serving on the board.
“It has been brought to my attention that GRCA as a nonprofit corporation is a non-stock corporation and there is technically no owner of the corporation,” Shupp's letter says. “As a result, I do not meet the technical legal definition for eligibility for the board.”
According to the state statute for authority appointments, “a majority of the members of the Authority shall be residents of the city, and the remainder may be nonresidents who own and operate businesses in the city in which the Authority is to operate.”
Shupp is listed as having an address in Birdsboro, according to City Clerk Linda A. Kelleher.
The mayor appointed Shupp to the five-member board in April, and her term was set to expire at the end of 2023.
Shupp could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.
As of Thursday afternoon, Scott had not appointed a replacement for Shupp, according to Cindy Castner, the mayor's special assistant.
Shupp's resignation came about a week after Berks County Commissioner Mark C. Scott resigned from the board for similar reasons.
The mayor appointed Mark Scott to the board Feb. 8.
He resigned Feb. 13 after the authority's solicitor, Keith Mooney, alerted Osmer S. Deming, the city's acting managing director, to the requirements for serving on the board.
Mark Scott does not live or own a business in the city.
On the same day Mark Scott resigned, the mayor appointed Dr. Lazaro Pepen, a family physician, to fill the seat. Pepen said he lives in Lehigh County, but his practice has been at 40 S. Fifth St. for more than 20 years.
The other board members, W. Glenn Steckman III, Juan Zabala and Acting Chairman Mel Jacobson, live in the city.
At its meeting Thursday night, the board tabled a discussion about the authority's 2019 budget because, Jacobson said, Shupp was going to give that presentation.
WRITTEN BY KAREN SHUEY
BERN TOWNSHIP, PA — The cost of doing business at the Reading Regional Airport is getting expensive.
At least that's the opinion of two tenants who recently negotiated new leases with the Reading Regional Airport Authority.
The tenants, James Dastra of Atlantic Coast Aircraft Services and Russ Strine of the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, say the decision by the authority to raise their leasing rates by more than 80 percent is hurting their bottom lines and may force them to reconsider their futures at the public airport.
The authority has a different perspective.
Chairman Michael Setley says the authority, as stewards of a public asset, has an obligation to act in a fiscally responsible manner when it comes to operating and maintaining the airfield.
The conflict between the two tenants and the authority, which until now had remained a private matter, was made public last month when Berks County Commissioner Mark C. Scott voiced his frustration about the situation at a weekly commissioners board meeting. He said the trouble began after the tenants missed the deadline to notify the authority that they wish to renew their leases.
“The authority members jumped on that and then decided that they would either confiscate the property by terminating the lease or raise the rent to an impossible level,” he told those who were gathered at the meeting. “The situation with Dastra is one thing because he's a businessman who runs a company, but the museum is another thing. For them to be treated so badly is just outrageous.”
Scott said he understands the authority is facing a potential financial crisis in the next few years but believes raising rates will only alienate existing tenants and discourage new tenants from doing business at the airport.
Dastra said the authority tends to be very difficult to work with — particularly over the last few years.
He said the relationship soured when he missed a deadline in 2016 to notify the authority that he would like to renew his lease and was informed that he would have to pay a significantly higher rate if he wanted to continue operating at the airport in Bern Township.
He had been paying 30 cents per square foot. He would now have to pay 55 cents per square foot.
“It puts pressure on us to pass that hike on to our existing tenants and makes bringing in any new business almost impossible,” he said.
Dastra has experience bringing new business to the airport. He said he was responsible for possibly two of the biggest additions to the airport in its recent history: Quest Diagnostics, a clinical laboratory, and Northrop Grumman Corp., a plane and avionics maker.
“I know what I'm doing. I know what works, and I know what doesn't work,” Dastra said. “These rates are just onerous. Why would a client come to Reading at a rate of 55 cents and a hostile board when they could go to Lancaster where the rate is lower and the board will work with you?”
Dastra said all he wanted was to be treated fairly.
He launched a discrimination complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration shortly after the rate hike, alleging the authority was treating him differently than other tenants. The result of that investigation, he said, found that the authority had done nothing wrong. It found that the authority was within its right to raise rates as new leases are negotiated.
But now Dastra fears the complaint has tied the hands of the authority, forcing them to charge everyone who seeks a new lease with the airport the same 55-cent rate.
Dastra said it's no secret that the airport is having financial problems, but raising rates isn't the solution.
“The way to get out of financial difficulty is growth, and you're not going to get growth at 55 cents,” he said. “Take it from a guy who knows this business. Corporate aviation is booming right now — except in Reading.”
Setley said that's simply not the case, and he's confident a 55-cent rate isn't going to drive away tenants.
And why is that?
“Because no one has left,” he said. “Both of these matters are in some form of administrative procedure or litigation, so I need to be careful about what I say. I will point out, however, that Jim Dastra ended up signing a lease at 55 cents, so if it's financial untenable for him to pay that, then why in the world did he sign the lease?”
Setley said landlords always want more, and tenants always want to pay less.
“We can't stay at 1916 pricing,” he said. “For whatever reason, lease rents have remained stagnant for decades, and it would be disastrous for all parties if we could no longer run an airport. We don't have a printing press to print money to maintain the airport.”
Randall W. Swan, authority vice chairman, said the real estate committee worked hard to come up with a fair rate.
“Determining how much to charge for a piece of land at an airport is not as easy as determining the price of a house,” he said. “Airport properties are unique, so we gathered information from a number of sources.”
Swan said a professional was hired to appraise the land, they studied the rates at surrounding airports, they examined what kind of improvements had been made to some properties and they took a look at the infrastructure that had been added to some properties.
“Look, a piece of real estate is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it,” he said.
Swan pointed to recent construction of a new 20,000-square-foot hangar just north of the terminal by a private firm based in Lebanon County as evidence the 55-cent rate isn't preventing growth.
Setley said at a monthly authority meeting in October that the airport actually makes a modest income on a month-to-month basis.
But back in 2000, a prior airport board borrowed $8 million to renovate the passenger terminal at the airport. Right around then, US Airways and other regional and national airlines ended their commercial passenger service to Reading. Before that, local residents could park free at Reading Regional, catch a small passenger plane to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and fly to anywhere in the world.
The debt was a big hit to the authority's bottom line, especially since passenger traffic through the terminal was lost as a revenue stream.
“The story it (balance sheet) tells is if we didn't have the debt to repay, we'd be doing all right,” Setley said at the time.
The authority has paid down about half of the $8 million and in recent years of low-interest rates has refinanced the debt to keep monthly payments manageable.
Part of the debt was paid down when the Berks County Industrial Development Authority in 2012 bought 155 acres of mostly unused land on the southeast side of the airport. BCIDA purchased the site at Aviation and Bernville roads from the airport authority for $2.6 million for an industrial park.
Called Berks Park 183, the industrial park is expected to generate 500 to 600 permanent positions once it is completed.
The board refinanced the debt when it sold the land to BCIDA. It paid $2 million toward the debt and kept about $600,000 on hand as a reserve fund. The terms of that refinancing were for five years of interest-only payments.
This year, the board has to begin making interest and principal payments, about $300,000 per year.
After two years, the authority won't be able to afford the payments under its current revenue stream, authority Solicitor Ed Stock told the authority members at that meeting.
Strine said the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum has had a great relationship with the authority.
But this one issue has created some unnecessary turbulence.
“A very simple lease dispute has turned into something much more difficult,” he said.
Strine, fearing that the disagreement may be headed to court, directed questions about the lease dispute to Stephen Welz, a Wyomissing attorney who is representing the interests of the museum in the potential legal battle.
Welz laid out the situation as it stands.
The museum acquired a company called Airlife Hangars in 2014, which owned 10 nested T-hangars on land leased from the airport authority. The museum uses six of the hangars to house its own aircraft and rents out the remaining four hangars to private individuals.
The original lease between Airlife Hangars, which began in 1988, was taken over by the museum. That lease had a fixed expiration date with an additional series of three five-year renewals — the second of which was set to begin in September 2018.
And that lease required a one-year advance notice of intention to renew the contract.
But Strine missed that one-year deadline in September 2017 by fewer than than 10 days.
Strine said he had been out of town and simply forgot to submit the notice before he left.
The authority responded by alerting Strine the lease would therefore be terminated in September 2018.
Welz said that course of action was unneeded. He argues that since the lease agreement failed to include a “time is of the essence” clause — a legal term that denotes strict adherence to deadlines — the fact that Strine was a little late in submitting his notice should not be held against him.
But the authority didn't see it that way.
They told Strine that they would seize ownership of the hangars and that his only option is to enter into a new lease for the land and the hangars with a rate increase from 30 cents to 55 cents.
“There's no way the museum can afford that,” Welz said. “It's a shame because we don't have any problem with the authority other than that.”
Welz said this battle went on for months. Strine met with the real estate committee last January in an attempt to negotiate a lower rate. But Welz said nothing was resolved at that meeting. So, Strine met with Stock and airport manager Terry P. Sroka in November to see if they could agree on a compromise.
Welz said Strine offered to pay 32 cents per square foot. He said he came up with that figure after examining the average lease rates charged at four surrounding airports — Lancaster Airport, Northeast Philadelphia Airport, Capital City Airport and Lehigh Valley International Airport.
The authority denied the offer.
Since then, Welz said the museum has been mailing its rent to the authority for the T-hangars, and the authority has refused to accept it. They say the museum is trespassing by keeping its aircraft in those hangars.
“This whole thing is bizarre,” he said. “It's hard to get your arms around this from a common-sense perspective because it seems so obvious. And it's especially hard to understand why they wouldn't take what they were offered in November just to be able to move past this controversy.”
Swan said the authority is simply treating its customers as equally and fairly as possible.
He argued that when the Airlife Hangars lease expired, it was a for-profit company. Since then, the museum has made some movement to say that the property is now under nonprofit status, but those particular T-hangars were initially developed and subleased to other tenants as a for-profit venture.
Swan said he appreciates the situation Strine finds himself in but doubts taxpayers would want the authority to give the museum a pass.
“If you have a contract that says do this, this and this or don't do this, this and this, which particular paragraph should I ignore because someone was out of town,” he said. “Business is business.”
Strine said he's hopeful the museum and authority can work out their difference quickly. But he added the possible legal battle will not put World War II Weekend in jeopardy — at least for now.
The museum and most of its other buildings are listed under a separate 20-year lease. That agreement, Strine said, has 13 years remaining before it can be renegotiated.
“We have no intentions of leaving the Reading airport at this point,” he said.
The overall numbers may have been small but suggested a glimmer of hope: For the first time in more than two decades, Philadelphia last year saw more money flow into its workers pension fund than was paid out.
A report unveiled by the city pension board on Thursday said city employees and taxpayers contributed $865 million to the fund, while only $838 million was paid out in retiree benefit payments and fund expenses.
Overall, the plan is still woefully short, projected to have only 47 percent of the $12 billion it needs to pay current and future retirees. But that’s an improvement over what had been a bleak 45-percent funding status for years — and a positive shift in what has been a struggling pension fund .
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who is a member of the pension board, commended the city’s improvements but also called for further reforms and improvements.
The increase in funding was in part a result of additional contributions from city employees, negotiated in the most recent labor contracts , and a portion of the sales tax being used to help pay off the fund’s $6.1 billion unfunded liability.
The city pumped in an extra $63.1 million in fiscal year 2018, which included $24 million in sales tax revenue and $6 million in additional member contributions, according to the actuarial valuation report. Both those numbers are expected to continue increasing each year under the city’s new funding policy.
Rhyhart said during Thursday’s meeting that the investment returns on public pensions have been dropping and are expected to continue to decline. She would like the fund to move from its current 7.6 percent assumed rate of return to a 6.8 percent rate. She also suggested other recommendations, including amending the city’s investment policy and adding an extra layer to its stress testing.
Fellow board members, however, were already pushing back on her proposals, saying that everything she recommended the board was already doing, even if it wasn’t a written policy.
“Everything you have here — [it] makes sense to formalize it. I don’t want it to go to the public as if these are new ideas,” said Brian Coughlin, the fire union’s representative on the board. “The only question I have that I wouldn’t want to see is that 6.8 percent. I think that unfair and a little bit irresponsible.”
Such a shift would limit the fund’s market risk but cost the city $1.6 billion more over several years, Rhyhart said.
“I know there’s a big hit on the city’s budget,” Rhynhart said. “But I do think it’s realistic and it’s also in the best interest — which we are all working towards— for the pensioners and future pensioners.”
Rhynhart said that while she doesn’t expect the board to adjust its investment return rate to 6.8 percent in one move, she would like to see it lower than 7.55 percent. She asked that they consider her proposals at the March board meeting.
Coughlin and other board members were ready on Thursday to vote to decrease the rate to 7.55 percent, noting that since 2005 they have been slowly paring the assumed rate of return from its high of 9 percent. But they held back at Rhynhart’s request.
The fund’s investments saw a 9 percent return in 2018. But over time, the asset return rates have been well under 7 percent — for example, averaging 6.73 over the last five years.
A Wisconsin-based company that presented the low bid for a scoreboard at Bowman Field alleges a “conflict of interest”may have occurred in the original bidding process for the $600,000 video system.
Bob Masewicz, CEO of Visua, of La Crosse, Wisconsin, told city officials this week that a consultant from a competitor was allowed into a closed-door session with those selecting which company would be awarded the bid.
The competitor worked with 12-10 Production Co., a company that did business with the company recommended for the contract — Daktronics — and Visua was among the businesses rejected for not meeting bid specifications.
“A Visua employee attended the original bid opening and observed it,” Masewicz said.
Daktronics was recommended, according to David Witmer, on-site construction manager with Reynolds Construction Management Inc., of Harrisburg.
Witmer told Visua it had the right to protest in a courtesy call.
But Visua also received an anonymous voicemail from another individual who stated the bids were “rigged” at the Williamsport Crosscutters scoreboard project.
The Crosscutters are the single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies that has a lease agreement with the city.
The scoreboard and stadium upgrades, which have been taking place over the past four years, are critical to retaining the team, according to Mayor Gabriel J. Campana.
A city financial official involved in the process brushed off Visua’s protest as “not legitimate.”
“Visua has protested before,” said William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director and general manager of River Valley Transit. RVT passes or facilitates for financial projects that go into the stadium improvements, he said.
“That is why we put out the opportunity for any bidder to send in any of their concerns, issues, and took extra steps to ensure they met the right qualifications,” Nichols said. “That is why we rebid it again because of issues like this.”
Nichols said an attorney working for the city has fired off a letter of response to Visua.
In just a few days, City Council is expected to see the funding outlay to use funds to match the $600,000 grant, for which the city is responsible so the project moves ahead.
The funding is available, Nichols said. It includes $200,000 from Bowman Field receipts and revenue from Lycoming County Visitors Bureau and Major League Baseball, $100,000 from the Crosscutters’ owner and city commitments to use $50,000 a year in natural gas impact fees.
“We will need $100,000 of gas impact fees,” Nichols said.
The delay in the process – a result of the rebidding and council’s finance committee questioning where funds would come for the match for the grant – has put pressure on whether the scoreboard and its camera system can arrive by June 14, the Crosscutters’ home opener.
“It takes eight weeks to deliver the scoreboard,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, chairwoman of public works committee. “It will be tight.”
Lou Hunsinger Jr. agrees the process hasn’t been ideal.
“It’s been a mess,” said Hunsinger Jr., Bowman Field Commission chairman.
The commission has Campana-appointed members to volunteer their time and skills to contribute to overall maintenance and improvement of the stadium.
Hunsinger said he was aware the rebidding has led to a delay that will mean the scoreboard won’t be up in time for the Pennsylvania College of Technology baseball games or high school tournaments.
LEWISTOWN — The Mifflin County Commissioners on Thursday approved a new partnership between the county and local municipalities that may have upcoming bridge improvement projects.
Commissioner Rob Postal explained the project will reduce costs to municipalities to only 10 percent of any project costs with the rest being taken on by the county through its local use fund.
“This is for municipal bridge projects, not county bridges,”Postal said. “The fund currently has around $193,000 that will be made available for local bridge improvements for those deemed structurally unsound.”
Postal said there are discussions going on with some municipalities on possible projects moving forward.
Commissioner Kevin Kodish noted, “We feel this is a great partnership between the county and municipalities. Normally, the municipalities have laid out all the costs involved. This should provide great results in the years to come.”
Commissioner Stephen Dunkle added, “This is a great opportunity for municipalities to work with each other by sharing equipment and manpower which will result in lower costs. This should go a long way.”
In other business Thursday, the commissioners:
¯ Approved a professional services agreement with the EADS Group Inc. of Lewistown for CDBG funded activities for a three-year contract in the borough of Lewistown. It was reported that two other firms also bid on the contract.
¯ Approved an amendment to an existing agreement between the county, Derry Township and Buchart Horn for limited professional engineering services for the Lewistown Heights drainage and paving project that has experienced several delays. The amendment would extend the agreement several months to reflect those delays.
¯ Approved a purchase of service agreement between Children and Youth Services and Hillary Benny of Lewistown to provide training for intake screener positions within the department at a cost of $23 per hour for no longer than 25 hours.
¯ Heard additional comments from Dunkle concerning his disappointment in the way the Mifflin County Library Board handled the closing of three library branches in 2014. Dunkle said during budget discussions for the current fiscal year, the library was offered $10,000 more than requested if the board and director would acknowledge the lack of transparency and apologized for the method used in closing the branches. Dunkle said director Dr. Molly Kinney “flatly refused and would not consider an apology in exchange for a significant contribution to the library. They say ‘we’re moving on.’ That board and the current board need to man up. They need to state the way they did this was wrong.”
¯ Accepted the yearly certification report for the Mifflin-Juniata County Human Services Development Fund for fiscal year 2017-18.
¯ Appointed Karin Knode of Mifflin County CareerLink and Kathy Whalen, Juniata Valley Behavioral and Development Services, to the Human Services Development Board.
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County won’t ask the state Historical and Museum Com-mission for a grant this year to spend on Courtroom 1 renovations.
Unable to pinpoint county dollars to match a potential grant, Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr. declined Thursday to support a grant application.
“Your approach will cost the county more money in the long run,” Commissioner Terry Tomassetti told fellow commissioners.
“But where would we get the money now?” Beam asked.
“There’s not enough money left in the 2017 bond issue to be the matching funds,” Erb said.
Tomassetti recommended Tuesday that the county submit a grant application for what could be as much as $100,000 toward completion of ceiling restoration work in Courtroom 1, which was built as part of the courthouse’s 1906 addition fronting Union Street.
Finding money within the county’s resources has the potential to provide the county with a return of $100,000, Tomassetti said.
It also puts the county in a position, he added, to undertake the work later this year or early 2020 while that section of the courthouse remains closed for the HVAC project. Both courtrooms and nearby offices were closed in June for the HVAC project, which is expected to continue through the end of the year.
If the county gets a grant for ceiling restoration work and moves forward, it may never again need to close a courtroom for a significant period of time, Tomassetti said.
Neither Erb nor Beam were swayed by that argument.
“I want to finish the 1875 courtroom,” Erb said, referring to Courtroom 2, the largest courtroom and part of the original structure, fronting Allegheny Street. Before the HVAC work started, Courtroom 2 had to have extensive repairs to its plaster, windows and woodwork because of water leakage.
When commissioners meet Tuesday, they’re expected to vote on several tasks associated with Courtroom 2’s renovations, including the installation of wainscoting, doors, flooring, furnishings, carpeting plus repairs to furniture and the courtroom’s 25-foot decorative arch. Estimates put that work at costing $210,355.
Erb, who said his review of the 2017 bond issue showed no money to use as matching funds for the grant, said the bond issue has money for the expenses associated with finishing Courtroom 2.
Beam, who declined to support the grant application, said he also remains concerned about spending money beyond basic and necessary improvements that fall within budget.
“I commend the people who look at the renovation project with such great enthusiasm — and want to bring the courtroom settings back to their original style and settings,” Beam said. “I get it. It would be beautiful!
“But I’m also realistic and look at the total picture. … Would I like to have many beautiful and historical furnishings from the past, restored and in my home? Yes, probably so, but I can’t afford it. And looking at the county’s financial picture, the county can’t afford it either.”
Also in a recent meeting, commissioners have spoken of the option of considering another bond issue to address delayed maintenance in the courthouse’s 1999 section and other improvements to the 1875 and 1906 sections, the county prison and the parking garage.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to be able to afford down the road,” Erb said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.
DeBartola files motion seeking to hold Cambria County DA in contempt of court
EBENSBURG – A Johnstown man who’s battled the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office to release records concerning drug forfeiture money has filed a new motion alleging the documents he received in response to a recent court order are insufficient.
John DeBartola first submitted a right-to-know request in 2017 for a full accounting of of all payroll wages and overtime wages paid from the drug forfeiture account to any county employees and police officers of Cambria County from 2000 to present.
Cambria County’s commissioners eventually appointed attorney Calvin J. Webb as special counsel for District Attorney Kelly Callihan’s office last year to handle DeBartola’s requests and appeals at a cap of $10,000.
Both Webb and Cambria County Solicitor Bill Barbin argued in front of President Judge Norman Krumenacker III during a hearing held in May.
In November, Krumenacker issued four opinions – each about 40 pages – directing Callihan’s office to redact investigative details from existing documents regarding the specific financial activity.
Those four rulings also directed Callihan to release financial records concerning drug forfeiture funds, which she had argued contained confidential information that could affect active investigations and is protected by the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act.
As part of the court order, DeBartola received numerous documents, including an attestation of nonexistent records Callihan signed Jan. 18 stating records concerning payroll and overtime wage payments from the drug forfeiture account do not exist.
“In other words, the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office is going on record to state that it has no record of who received funds from a financial account that it maintains,” DeBartola wrote in a contempt of court motion filed Thursday.
“It is my position that the attestation signed by District Attorney Callihan is insufficient and in contempt of Judge Krumenacker’s order. It is inconceivable that the district attorney’s office has no record as to how these funds were disbursed.”
The attestation says Callihan reviewed files, but DeBartola questions why it did not indicate which files she reviewed or who she asked in her office to confirm these records don’t exist.
In the attestation, Callihan also acknowledges that two previous field supervisors of the county drug task force – Kevin Price and Thomas Owens – are no longer employed by her office. DeBartola questioned why Callihan could not access these individuals for more information on the records he’s seeking.
DeBartola is making the same argument concerning records he requested related to the names of all employees, third-party employees and independent contractors of Callihan’s office with their salaries, wages, job titles and job descriptions from 2013 to present.
“Basically, I asked who works in your office and how much do they make?” DeBartola’s motion says.
In regards to that request, DeBartola said he received a similar attestation of nonexistent records.
“It is inconceivable that a sitting district attorney of Pennsylvania, after reviewing ‘files’ and speaking with ‘office personnel,’ does not have any records of who works in her office now or in 2013,” DeBartola wrote.
DeBartola said he wants “to know the truth, plain and simple.”
“Why would you spend three years and tens of thousands of dollars fighting if there are no records?” he said.
Ultimately, DeBartola said he’s hoping Krumenacker will hold Callihan in contempt of court and in compliance with the orders he issued in November.
Callihan said Thursday her office respects and complied with Krumenacker’s court orders “by providing hundreds of pages of information, much of which required redactions to keep sources and investigative matters confidential.”
In regards to personnel records, Callihan said those are maintained by the county’s human resources office and are not in her possession.
“(DeBartola) already received this information in a separate request to the county and therefore possesses the information sought,” she said.
Callihan also said no overtime or wages are paid from drug forfeiture accounts, nor is it recommended in the guidelines set forth by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.
“No checks are issued to individual police officers,” she said.
“Their overtime wages are paid by the police departments for work they do on the drug task force. It is then reimbursed, previously by the Cambria County Drug Task Force, and currently by the Attorney General’s Office on a monthly basis by checks issued to the departments. Therefore, no such records exist in the drug forfeiture account.”
Callihan said DeBartola has received this information in two separate requests filed with the county for overtime wages for drug task force work done by county detectives and sheriff’s deputies, and also possesses this information.
“This filing is nothing more than a publicity stunt,” she said.
“This office will ask for dismissal as this is a frivolous motion with no legal basis.”
Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.
Johnstown City Council members Jack Williams and Charlene Stanton say other members of council and city officials have failed to follow the municipality's Home Rule Charter on multiple occasions, ignoring a court order.
Earlier this month, they filed a civil case in the Cambria County Court of Common Pleas against those parties.
“We are initiating asking for contempt sanctions for their noncompliance with agreed court-ordered stipulations,” Williams said.
Williams and Stanton named City Manager George Hayfield and Finance Director Robert Ritter in the filing, along with council colleagues Frank Janakovic, Marie Mock, David Vitovich, the Rev. Sylvia King and Ricky Britt.
“It's not a new action," Williams said. "It's a follow-up for council and administration not complying with the Home Rule Charter and the court order of April 18, 2018, which they all agreed to.”
Williams and Stanton allege the parties named are in violation of a court-ordered stipulation, which settled an action filed against individuals who were on council in 2017 – Mayor Janakovic, Nunzio Johncola, Mock, Vitovich and Pete Vizza, along with then-City Manager Arch Liston and the city.
In April 2018, Janakovic, Mock, Vitovich, King and Britt voted to accept the settlement, which, in part, required them to adhere to the laws for financial procedures set out in the charter, with Williams and Stanton abstaining.
Hayfield declined to comment on the latest legal matter.
“Frankly speaking, that would be the norm for everyone,” he said.
Janakovic said Williams is “showboating,” as opposed to bringing his concerns to council, Hayfield and Ritter, in a timely fashion, for consideration during the budget process.
“There's no way that should ever reach a lawsuit,” Janakovic said. “All Mr. Williams had to do, at any time, is send this information to finance at City Hall to review and discuss. But he chooses not to share that information and present it a half-hour before a council meeting. That doesn't give council or anyone adequate time to review anything he submits. It's simply, I believe, a tactic to disrupt the budget process.”
Past and present
The legal action divides the issues into two categories: financial procedures for the year ending Dec. 31, 2018 and financial procedures for the adoption of the 2019 budget.
Stanton and Williams contend the final monthly financial report of 2018 indicated that 27 separate expenditure line items showed an accumulated negative balance of $559,376.
“What the charter says is, if there's no money in an appropriation, you don't make the obligation or spend the money,” Williams said.
The 2019 budget was then adopted on Jan. 16, 2019, while the charter states “The Council shall adopt the forthcoming budget, capital program, tax levies, and other revenue measures no later than December thirty-first (31st) of the fiscal year currently ending. ”
Williams and Stanton argue that “numerous” appropriations in the budget fail to provide comparative figures for actual and estimated expenditures for the budgetary year (2019), then-current year (2018) and preceding year (2017). In the court document, they also list issues with monies in several areas, including the general fund, Community Development Block Grant, and culture and recreation.
As part of their argument, the two council members cited an email in which Deb Grass, the city's coordinator in the state's Act 47 program for distressed municipalities, wrote that the adopted budget was “not entirely consistent” with the Home Rule Charter, the Act 47 recovery plan and Act 47 exit plan. She mentioned council missing the deadline to pass a budget, along with not addressing a projected $455,345 shortfall by increasing taxes, but rather by using money from an unrestricted fund balance.
But, in an email sent to The Tribune-Democrat, Grass said the city manager and finance director “did a good job under very challenging circumstances,” noting that 2017 and 2018 were the first years in 10 that the city ended with an excess of revenue, compared to expenses.
Grass said some individuals want to “portray the city in the worst possible light,” but she would like to see support given to those working to “stabilize” the city's financial base and advance projects.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor .
The downtown ballpark is in line for millions of dollars in improvements, fueled by a $12 million state grant.
Welcome to UPMC Park’s multimillion-dollar facelift.
Funded in part by a $12 million state grant, the home of the Erie SeaWolves could soon have a new, state-of-the-art scoreboard, revamped concession stands and an upper-level stadium club area connected to the adjacent Erie Insurance Arena.
Renovated restrooms, corporate suites and commissary areas are also part of the plan.
In addition, there are plans for a team store; elevated decks and the expansion of corridors; an exterior marquee; a larger children’s area; new lighting and walkways, and offices that will be shared by the SeaWolves and the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters.
Those amenities, and more, were unveiled and explained on Thursday as representatives from design firm Jones Petrie Rafinski presented renderings of the planned improvements for the downtown ballpark to the Erie County Convention Center Authority’s board of directors.
“This is our master plan,” said Andrew Cunningham, a landscape architect with the design firm, which has offices in Elkhart, South Bend and Fort Wayne, Indiana. “It kind of gives you an overview of the scope we’re looking at.”
The firm is handling design services for the project and is being paid about $880,000 to conceptualize improvements to the home of the SeaWolves, a Detroit Tigers affiliate that plays on the Double-A level in the Eastern League.
The Convention Center Authority oversees Erie Events, which manages the ballpark at 110 E. 10th St.
The improvements are the first on a significant scale for the ballpark since 2007, when it was known as Jerry Uht Park. The venue received a complete renovation, which was completed in time for the start of the 2008 season.
“I think that these improvements bring this ballpark up to the top standards of AA baseball and they will provide expanded opportunities for the SeaWolves and the Otters,” said Casey Wells, Erie Events’ executive director. “And with the arena and even the Warner Theater, the design benefits all the facilities and helps enhance the cultural and entertainment district downtown.”
Wells has said that the park needs about $20 million of work, and some construction could start as soon as July, during the SeaWolves’ season. The bulk of the work will be completed before the start of the 2020 minor-league baseball season, he said.
Some of the UPMC Park improvements have already been completed.
In October, a $500,000 field-replacement project was completed that included new turf as well as replacement of irrigation and drainage systems, the pitching mound and the outfield warning track.
Wells added that the park’s new scoreboard could be installed sometime in June or July.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced the $12 million investment in UPMC Park on Aug. 13. The city of Erie first requested state funding for ballpark repairs in 2014.
The same day as Wolf’s grant announcement, Wells announced that the SeaWolves and Otters, of the Ontario Hockey League, would remain in Erie for at least the next 10 years.
SeaWolves President Greg Coleman, in previous interviews, has called the improvements “reassuring” and said the investment “proved how committed the city and state are to keeping baseball in Erie.”
Erie Events officials showed the UPMC Park renderings to Erie Mayor Joe Schember and Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper on Thursday morning. Schember said that the plans line up well with the final $16.5 million phase of renovations to the historic Warner Theatre at 811 State St., located near UPMC Park.
The Warner improvements include a larger stage and new rehearsal area; a new marquee at the theater’s State Street entrance that replicates the Warner’s original marquee and incorporates many of its original elements, including stained glass; an enclosed walkway; and an outdoor video screen that would be affixed to the theater along French Street.
Wells and other Erie Events officials have said the upgrades will allow the theater to accommodate larger shows.
The Warner project is being paid for with $11 million in state funding as well as $3.5 million in private donations in escrow with the Warner Theatre Preservation Trust and $2 million from Erie Events. Work at the theater could start later this year.
“I’m really excited about it (UPMC Park),” Schember said. “Along with what they’re doing with the Warner, it really helps create an arts-and-entertainment district right here in Erie. That helps transform downtown and make it better.”
Kevin Flowers can be reached at 870-1693 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNflowers .
Laura Olson Call Washington Bureau
Money for military projects in Pennsylvania could be at risk as the Trump administration seeks to shift funding to the president’s border wall, according to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and other congressional Democrats .
The White House has said $3.6 billion already approved for military construction projects and another $2.5 billion in military counterdrug funding will be diverted to pay for construction along the southern border.
But administration officials have not yet identified which specific projects would lose funding. Defense Department officials have emphasized that housing projects for military families would not be affected.
Meanwhile, Democrats have compiled lists showing roughly 400 military construction projects nationally — including Pennsylvania — for which funding has been approved but not yet committed.
Nearly $200 million has been approved for those Pennsylvania projects, including $71 million for a submarine propeller manufacturing facility at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. Another $85 million is listed for Pittsburgh’s Air Force Reserve station, for expansion related to larger C-17 cargo aircraft .
Casey’s office also identified $20 million set aside to improve security at Fort Indiantown Gap, and $9 million for a National Guard readiness center in York.
Some of the counterdrug funding that the White House seeks to shift also could affect Pennsylvania. The state received $3.8 million last year through the National Guard’s Counterdrug Program, according to an analysis from Governing Magazine .
“We have received no information from the administration on what’s at risk, and that is unacceptable,” Casey posted Thursday on Twitter. “I will fight like hell to keep this funding and these projects up and running in Pennsylvania.”
Sixteen states, led by California, have sued the Trump administration over the national emergency declaration . They argue that shifting military funding to wall-building will hurt their economies and deprive their military bases of needed upgrades.
Pennsylvania has not joined the lawsuit. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has said he would “not hesitate to take legal action if our commonwealth loses out on any money we have been allocated by Congress.”
Jacqueline Palochko Of The Morning Call
Despite the state Supreme Court striking down Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district maps that had been widely viewed as gerrymandering, a panel of local experts said the process of redistricting must change before maps are drawn in 2021.
Thursday night, a Muhlenberg College panel that included government advocates, college students and U.S. Democrat Rep. Susan Wild offered solutions to redistricting such as independent commissions redrawing the maps. Panelists also urged citizens to get involved with efforts.
“If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention,” said Carol Kuniholm, co-founder of the advocacy group Fair Districts PA.
Every state is required to go through redistricting after a census. The next opportunity comes in 2021.
In Pennsylvania, the process of drawing lines is controlled by the Legislature and requires approval of the governor. When one party controls the Legislature and the governorship, redistricting is prone to partisan preferences.
It essentially is a power position for that party, said Chris Borick, professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. In 2001 and 2011, Republicans were in control in Pennsylvania.
“We are a system that allows the state government through its elected representatives to choose the districts for both Harrisburg and for Washington, D.C.,” Borick said. “That power is in their hands.”
With Gov. Tom Wolf getting elected to a second term and a Democratic majority entrenched on the state Supreme Court, the Democrats could now be in control of redrawing the lines in 2021.
“The current redistricting system needs improvement,” said Lehigh County Commissioner Amanda Holt, who drew a redistricting map in 2012 that was pivotal to the state Supreme Court tossing a newly drawn set of state legislative boundaries that year.
While Holt advocated for better accountability in redistricting, Jill Greene, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, pushed for an independent citizen commission chosen by random selection to redraw the lines.
But it won’t be an easy fix and it will take time, Greene said.
“This is going to be a long fight,” she said.
Wild also called for an independent commission to redraw the lines.
“I don’t think anybody with political aspiration or in politics should have anything do with how those maps are drawn,” she said.
Wild’s election was affected by the January 2018 state Supreme Court decision that struck down the 2011 congressional map. The map was redrawn by the court’s Democratic majority and used in last year’s election.
Because of the decision, Wild essentially ran in two elections last year: the old 15th District that covered Lehigh County and parts of Northampton, Berks, Lebanon and Dauphin counties, and the current 7th District that is Lehigh, Northampton and parts of southern Monroe counties.
The old 15th District “didn’t make sense,” Wild said, because it encompassed too large of an area with varying interests. Combining all of Lehigh and Northampton counties into the 7th District was more practical because the two counties share infrastructure and economies.
The advocacy group Fair Districts PA is also pushing for an impartial, independent citizens commission to redraw district lines in Pennsylvania rather than allowing legislators to have the authority to do so.
Every state has a different process in handling redistricting.
Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about congressional maps in North Carolina and Maryland. Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is expected to have a key vote in the cases.
Thursday night’s panel also included Muhlenberg College student Benjamin Lieberman and Cedar Crest College student Rubi Garcia.
Despite the different solutions on how to fix redistricting, Borick said it’s a testament that discussions like Thursday night are drawing crowds.
“For years this topic has been important within the political science world,” he said. “But because of it’s nature, it never really resonated with the public despite its ramification and its impact on the way we’re represented.”
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
WASHINGTON — Last fall, four women from Pennsylvania won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, breaking up the state’s all-male congressional delegation and making history in the process.
The women, all Democrats, supported each other along the way, holding joint fundraisers, meeting up for margaritas, and consulting each other about how to manage joint media appearances — discussing everything from what to say to what to wear.
They’re called the “Fab Four.”
Now, two months into the first session of the 116th Congress, their bonds have intensified. “We’re all very different, but we do share the idea that we will go farther and succeed legislatively even better as we help one another,” said U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, of the Montgomery County-based 4th Congressional District.
Collaboration looks a little different on the U.S. Capitol grounds than it did on the Pennsylvania campaign trail. “We do not march in lock step by any means,” said Rep. Susan Wild, of the Lehigh Valley-based 7th District.“But we bounce ideas off each other and talk about issues. … If we’re proposing a bill, the first people we check in with are [each other].”
Wild, Dean, and U.S. Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and Chrissy Houlahan are the first women to represent the Keystone State in Congress since 2015, when ex-Rep. Allyson Schwartz retired.
Their backgrounds are diverse: Wild was the first female solicitor of Allentown; Dean was a state representative; Scanlon, D-5th District, was a civil rights attorney; Houlahan, D-6th District, is a veteran and former science teacher.
Six other women have served in the state’s congressional delegation, three of whom were elected without first succeeding husbands who died in office. No more than two women had previously represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House at the same time.
Until last year’s “pink wave,” Pennsylvania was the largest state with an all-male congressional delegation. The state ranked 49th in women’s political representation overall, across multiple levels of government, according to RepresentWomen, an organization working to advance gender parity in politics.
Today, women hold four of the state’s 18 House seats — or just over 20 percent — a change that helps boost the state’s ranking to 40th.
Though the state still earns a “D” overall, going from “zero to four” has powerful symbolic implications, according to Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics in New Jersey. “When girls see women in office, they are able to see themselves in those roles,” she said.
That was the case for Dean’s granddaughter, who ran up and said hello to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at Dean’s swearing-in ceremony on the House floor. “I just love that, in her mind … there’s no barrier for women,” Dean said.
Women’s political representation has substantive implications as well. Women “bring a different perspective and different life experiences” to the policymaking table, Dittmar said. “The women in Pennsylvania are part of that.”
Indeed, the Fab Four are working together to amplify their voices. Gun safety is an early priority. After joining a gun violence prevention task force, the women announced their membership together. It was a deliberate move “to signal that’s something we’re committed to working on jointly,” Scanlon said.
When Dean introduced legislation that would ban possession of firearms that can’t be detected by metal detectors, such as those created by 3D printers, Houlahan and Scanlon quickly signed on as co-sponsors.
The women have shown their support on other issues, too.
They co-sponsored Wild’s bill to pay the Coast Guard during the government shutdown, for example. Dean said the women also supported her run for vice chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, and Scanlon enjoyed the support of Dean, a fellow member of the House Judiciary Committee, in her run for vice chair (both of which were successful).
“There’s a lot we want to work on,” Scanlon said, ticking off issues ranging from student debt to health care to climate change. Even their staffs are getting to know each other well, Wild said.
Though busy, the women still find time to get together socially — over dinner and drinks, at pizza parties with other women in Congress, and often on the House floor. Another round of margaritas is also on the to-do list, Dean said.
Despite the Fab Four’s historic victories, the state has a long way to go before women achieve parity in Pennsylvania politics. Women hold only a quarter of the state’s legislative seats and no statewide offices. Pennsylvania has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate, and women of color and Republican women are especially underrepresented.
Systemic barriers are to blame, said Cynthia Terrell, executive director of RepresentWomen. “Pennsylvania is a very old-school state, where local politics has been dominated by men,” she said.
Dittmar echoed the sentiment, calling Pennsylvania politics a “boys club” where male-dominated political networks have recruited male candidates and supported them in their campaigns. District maps drawn by Republicans, meanwhile, have made it “awfully hard” for women to win office because they are more likely to run as Democrats, Terrell said.
When women do run, they tend to be older, which limits their political trajectories, added Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University. Women also have less access to moneyed networks, which means they spend less time knocking on doors and more time raising funds, which can impact election outcomes, she said.
That’s slowly changing in Pennsylvania, with female-targeted political action committees like the Philadelphia-based Represent and Pittsburgh’s Women for the Future sinking thousands of dollars into state races.
Demographics have also played a role, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Some of Pennsylvania’s ethnic populations hail from male-dominant cultures in southern and eastern Europe, he said, while Terrell noted that the state’s sizable Catholic population tends to back candidates who oppose abortion access.
Nevertheless, Congress watchers are optimistic about progress.
Last year, the state Supreme Court threw out the GOP’s redistricting map, which opened up more opportunities for Democrats, including the Fab Four.
The dynamics of the 2018 election, and conversations around sexual misconduct in particular, generated enthusiasm for diversity in politics, Dittmar said, which contributed to record numbers of women winning federal office last fall.
Political groups and politicians are working to build on the 2018 “Year of the Woman.” Ready to Run and Emerge America , for example, are recruiting and training women to run for office in Pennsylvania and around the country — a goal actively supported by the Fab Four.
Progress, said Houlahan, who will deliver the keynote address at a Ready to Run training event in Pennsylvania this weekend, “has to be permanent. Until we’re at 50 percent and sustainable, it’s not parity.”
Allison Stevens is a Washington-based correspondent for The Newsroom.
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
One of the saddest aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency — and one almost needs a supercomputer to keep track of all the sad parts — was that it prevented the United States from having its first-ever female president in Hillary Clinton.
It was even more regrettable given that the United States had had eight years of a generally successful Democratic administration under its first ever black president — Barack Obama.
It was then way too much to handle for Republicans and Trump’s much vaunted red-hatted “base” to go on to have the first ever female president, such was the backlash of regressive, conservative outpouring in November 2016.
Of course, the reality is Clinton won the presidential popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. She also didn’t need the help of Moscow, Julian Assange, Rob Goldstein or anyone else from a growing list of indicted or convicted people to do that.
Clinton’s dignity, poise and good grace throughout the 2016 campaign and beyond that, in the face of near-rabid attacks and conspiracy theories against her, goes to show just how formidable and iconic she truly is.
Trump’s questionable victory over Clinton served to be a clarion call to women across the country.
Somehow, just like his mocking a disabled reporter or a Gold Star family, Trump also managed to survive clear-cut evidence of his relishing that his stardom apparently allowed him to grab women by their genitals.
Just how could so many mothers now look their children in the eye and say in all good faith: “That is our president?”
Since 2016, more and more women have become involved in Democratic and progressive activism so as to stymie and push back on the bile-fueled MAGA nonsense propagated by Trump and his Keystone Cop-like cohort of billionaires, Fox News hosts, boggle-eyed radio presenters and political “commentators.”
The Democratic Party now has a wealth of female leadership and potential.
U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, of California, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, along with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are the stuff of GOP nightmares. There are such talented newcomers as U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.. and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
And they’re just the headliners. Thousands more women are also challenging the GOP and Trump’s scorched earth policies of privilege, division and hatred.
The Democratic Party simply cannot be what it is today without this rich and diverse level of female activity and engagement.
Fast forward to early 2019, and in what can only really be described as an epic demonstration of political expertise, savviness and simply being damn good at her job, Pelosi absolutely outplayed Trump and his miserable federal government shutdown.
Trump has a patronizing nickname for his foes — “Crooked Hilary”, “Cryin’ Chuck”, “Lyin’ Ted” and so on. But, tellingly, he doesn’t have one for Pelosi. She outwitted him. And Trump knows it.
Remember Trump’s (delayed) State of the Union address earlier this month? There, he was confronted by dozens of female members of Congress, all decked out in white in recognition and deference to the Suffragette movement of a century ago. They applauded both themselves and women across the United States as they become more noticeable and more assertive in their fight against Trump, the GOP, misogyny, bigotry and hate.
Trump and irony are the very worst of friends, so the fact that just so many women are now elected to Congress, precisely because of the nauseating tenure of Trump and all that he stands for, is utterly lost on him. He heard the applause. He truly thought it was for him.
As Megan Garber observed in her piece for the Atlantic, it absolutely was because of him, but oh so not in the way that he thought ” … their presence in the Congressional chamber was one thing a boast-prone president really could claim credit for: Many of the women, indeed, had ended up in their new jobs precisely as a reaction to the presidency and policies of Donald Trump.”
The United States has every reason to be supremely proud of the new wave of Democratic women that are taking up the political fight of their, and our, lives.
A President Harris or a President Warren being sworn in as Commander in Chief in January 2021 not only sounds good, but is increasingly more and more of a viable alternative to another four years of “governance” by Donald J. Trump.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Sean P. Quinlan, of Camp Hill, Pa., is an attorney and a former Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 87th state House District. His work appears biweekly.
WRITTEN BY READING EAGLE
READING, PA — U.S. Rep Chrissy Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat, was in Reading on Thursday, where she visited the students of Glenside Elementary School.
A two-hour delay to the start of school had students arriving at 10 a.m., the time Houlahan was set to arrive.
Dr. Khalid N. Mumin, superintendent of the Reading School District, accompanied Houlahan on a tour of the school. Later, Houlahan read students a book.
Houlahan represents the 6th District, which includes part of Ber ks County.
One of her interests is education. Before being elected to Congress, she worked with Springboard Collaborative, a Philadelphia-based literacy organization.
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
A Republican lawmaker from Pennsylvania is teaming with one of his Democratic colleagues to press the incoming head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more clarity on the agency’s plans to regulate a class of chemicals found in drinking water that are raising serious public health concerns.
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who represents Bucks County’s 1st Congressional District, has joined with Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, of Michigan, to ask Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to press incoming EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to more clearly articulate the agency’s plans to regulate chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
They sent the two Senate leaders a letter this week asking them to do just that.
Fitzpatrick and Kildee say they want those questions answered before the Senate votes to confirm Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, who was tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the regulatory agency.
At his confirmation hearing in January, Wheeler faced tough questions about his efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at fighting climate change, The New York Times reported . He’s replacing former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned last July in the wake of an ethics scandal.
During a news conference in Philadelphia last week , Wheeler, now the EPA’s acting administrator, released the agency’s plans to fight PFAS, which were used for years in the manufacturing of products like cookware, carpeting, rainwear, and shoes. They were also used in manufacturing polishes, cleaning products, and even microwave popcorn bags because they make surfaces heat-, water- and stain-resistant, Roll Call, a publication that covers Congress, reported this week.
According to Roll Call, PFAS are now being referred to as a “forever chemicals” because they take so long to degrade. In addition, “safety concerns about their replacements have become a new national environmental crisis,” the outlet reported.
“It’s more than just a crisis, it’s actually a tragedy when you read about the people who’ve been affected, like the folks in West Virginia,” Daniel Rosenberg, an environmental attorney and director of the toxics program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Roll Call.
That’s a reference, according to Roll Call, to “the thousands of people in and around Parkersburg, West Virginia, who were exposed to a form of PFAS used at a DuPont and Chemours Co. plant that has manufactured Teflon cookware and other products for decades. In 2017 DuPont agreed to pay more than $670 million to settle 3,550 damage claims related to the exposure.”
During that Philadelphia news conference, Wheeler said EPA officials were “moving as quickly as we can” to address PFAS contamination in drinking water, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported . Communities nationwide, including in Bucks and Montgomery counties, which are in Fitzpatrick’s district, have been impacted by the pollutant.
According to The Inquirer’s report, Wheeler also said the EPA would propose more testing to determine whether PFAS contamination was “more widespread than currently known.”
In a statement, Fitzpatrick said the EPA’s announcement was “long overdue but left many questions unanswered. In communities throughout Bucks and Montgomery counties, these toxic
chemicals have poisoned the water of tens of thousands of residents, and the EPA has failed to act.
“Our community needs to know that Acting Administrator Wheeler’s commitment is genuine, with a firm timeline of actionable steps, and not just a vague plan leading to more inaction. The time to act is now and these questions must be satisfactorily answered prior to confirmation,” Fitzpatrick said.
Kildee added that by “delaying real action on PFAS, the Trump Administration is failing to protect public health. EPA acting administrator’s recent PFAS Action Plan had very little detail about actual steps being taken to prevent contamination.
“Before he is confirmed to lead the EPA, Acting Administrator Wheeler must lay out a specific timeline for achieving the actions in the plan so the public can hold him accountable. Communities across the country are dealing with PFAS contamination and they need urgent action by the EPA now,” Kildee said.
The lawmakers say that before the Senate votes to confirm Wheeler, members should press him to establish “maximum contaminant levels” for the pollutants and “declare these are hazardous substances so people can have safe drinking water and aggressive cleanup can begin.”
Read the full text of the letter below:
“Dear Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer:
“We write to you regarding the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be the Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Last week, Mr. Wheeler announced the EPA’s PFAS Action Plan. Considering years of inaction by the EPA regarding PFAS, the fact that EPA released a plan to mobilize a comprehensive response to these toxic chemicals was welcome news. We are concerned, however, about the lack of timelines for accomplishing many of the action items in the plan, especially setting a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for two types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and designating them as hazardous substances.
“PFAS are a dangerous class of chemicals that are extremely persistent in the environment, break down very slowly in the human body, and are associated with a plethora of adverse health effects, including cancer, high cholesterol, weakened immune system and hypertension during pregnancy.
“Two types of PFAS—PFOA and PFOS—are in firefighting foam used to extinguish certain classes of fires. In our districts, this firefighting foam has been used at current and former military bases and has leached into people’s water supply surrounding these facilities. As a result, thousands of our constituents have been drinking and cooking in water contaminated by these toxic chemicals for many years. Protecting their health and ensuring their access to safe, clean drinking water is our highest priority.
“While we were pleased to hear that the PFAS Action Plan includes, in addition to a number of other actions, the intention to establish a MCL for PFOA and PFOS and to designate these two PFAS as hazardous substances, the proposed timeline for these actions was unclear. This is not the time to continue to make plans for discussion about how to protect our constituents from these harmful chemicals, this is the time for regulatory action.
“As such, prior to his confirmation as Administrator of the EPA, we are respectfully requesting that you ensure Mr. Wheeler’s firm commitment to quickly and aggressively regulating these chemicals with a timeline where Congress can hold the EPA accountable. Equivocation and procrastination are unacceptable; the health and well-being of our constituents depends on swift and effective regulatory action.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick wrote a letter to Senate leadership Thursday asking for acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler to commit to a timeline on PFAS regulations, prior to his being confirmed to lead the agency.
The controversy is still roiling a week after the Environmental Protection Agency released an “action plan” on toxic PFAS chemicals, with U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1, of Middletown, issuing a letter to Senate leadership Thursday calling on the EPA to set a more concrete timeline in addressing the chemicals.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are unregulated chemicals being found in an increasing number of water supplies across the country, including in Bucks and Montgomery counties. Last week , the EPA said it would determine by the end of the year whether to create a formal drinking water standard for the chemicals, and is also “moving forward” with other measures such as adding the chemicals to a list of hazardous substances under the Superfund law and developing cleanup levels for the chemicals in groundwater.
The EPA billed the plan as an unprecedented effort that involved collaborative efforts from across the agency’s varied programs. But critics said the plan was ambiguous and used qualifying words, such as “consider” and “propose,” when talking about certain initiatives. Others pointed out the action plan rollout, made by acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler in Philadelphia, came as he faces an uncertain Senate confirmation process to formally lead the agency, with some Republicans voicing their displeasure with the agency’s approach to PFAS.
In his letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, Fitzpatrick said Wheeler should not be confirmed until providing more detail. The letter was co-authored by U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan.
“Considering years of inaction by the EPA regarding PFAS, the fact that EPA released a plan to mobilize a comprehensive response to these toxic chemicals was welcome news,” the letter stated. “We are concerned, however, about the lack of timelines for accomplishing many of the action items in the plan, especially setting a (drinking water standard) ... and designating them as hazardous substances.”
The letter went on to say “equivocation and procrastination are unacceptable,” and called for the Senate leaders to “ensure” Wheeler commits to an aggressive timeline prior to being confirmed.
Fitzpatrick and Kildee’s letter underscored the confusion left following EPA’s Feb. 14 news conference announcing the action plan. Asked at the meeting whether the EPA could ultimately decide not to create a drinking water standard by the end of year, Wheeler said it would be determined by a regulatory process. But he added he had, “Every intention” of setting a standard.
Similar language was used in press calls held by regional EPA offices following the announcement. Still, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, who is the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, criticized the EPA in a news release that day as stopping short of a firm commitment.
But Carper backtracked in a news release on Tuesday, saying assistant EPA administrator Dave Ross had written him a letter in which he “made clear EPA intends to establish a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS.”
“This is long-awaited but welcome news by EPA,” Carper wrote, adding he would work with colleagues to “enure the EPA lives up to its commitment.”
Experts and policymakers have been similarly mixed on what exactly the EPA has committed to, if anything, resulting in media outlets also reporting different takeaways. The confusion revolves around the word “intention.”
Betsy Southerland, a former researcher and director in the EPA’s Office of Water who dealt directly with PFAS, reiterated Thursday her take that the EPA had only promised by the end of the year “to make a decision about whether they would do a drinking water standard.”
She added she had read Carper’s comments but due to the Senate being out this week, had been unable to talk to staffers to see if anything had significantly changed. She echoed Fitzpatrick in saying that even if the EPA is serious about regulating, more information is needed.
“That’s not necessarily that helpful, because we don’t have a schedule attached to that,” Southerland said, adding that adopting a standard can take years.
By Jim Martin
While the EDDC is investigating historic tax credits and other sources of funding, EDDC vice president Matt Wachter said investments from Opportunity Zone investors could play a significant role.
The Erie Downtown Development Corp. paid $2.95 million in September to buy eight properties along State Street and North Park Row.
More than five months later, the EDDC staff gave U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, of Butler, R-16th Dist., a tour of the buildings and an update on their progress Thursday as the group moves ahead with plans to renovate the 160-year-old buildings into first-floor commercial spaces and upper-floor apartments.
Matthew Wachter, the EDDC’s vice president for finance and development, said federal Opportunity Zones , which provide significant tax incentives for individuals and organizations that invest in specially designated low-income areas, are expected to provide some of the funding needed to renovate the buildings, which include the former Park Place tavern.
While the EDDC is investigating historic tax credits and other sources of funding, Wachter said money from Opportunity Zone investors could play a significant role.
“We’ve fielded more than 50 calls from out-of-town investors over the last six months,” he said.
The EDDC also took a call this week from The Wall Street Journal, which was inquiring about Erie’s early leadership role in Opportunity Zones.
Kelly, who was a supporter of the bipartisan Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that created the program, acknowledged Erie’s leadership role when he met with the staff of the EDDC and Brett Wiler, director of capital formation for the Flagship Opportunity Zone Development Corp.
“You guys are the leaders on this,” Kelly said. “This is going to be the model for the entire country.”
Kelly said there are other Opportunity Zones being developed throughout his congressional district, which encompasses, Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Lawrence counties, as well as the western half of Butler County. But to Kelly’s way of thinking, it’s a tool that’s not being used enough.
“It creates a tremendous amount of incentive,” he said. “There would be no incentive to develop here without this.”
The promise of tax incentives has changed the equation, Wachter said.
The once-popular Park Place that Kelly toured Thursday with John Persinger, CEO of the EDDC, had been stripped down to its brick walls.
And that had been no small effort. While the previous owners filled 30 dumpsters and held two auctions to get rid of the contents of the buildings, Wachter said another 20 dumpsters had been filled so far to haul away demolition debris.
While the EDDC isn’t saying much about its design plans for the building, Persinger did offer Kelly one insight on the design as he pointed to the boarded-up State Street entrance.
“We want to have a glass facade,” he said. “We want people to know there is life in downtown Erie.”
Jim Martin can be reached at 870-1668 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNMartin .
By Andrew Taylor, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats on Friday introduced a resolution to block the national emergency declaration that President Donald Trump issued to fund his long-sought wall along the U.S-Mexico border.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., immediately announced that a vote would come on Tuesday.
The move sets up a fight that could result in Trump's first veto. It starts the clock on a constitutional clash between Trump and Democrats and sets up a vote by the full House as soon as next week.
The Democratic-controlled House is sure to pass the measure, and the GOP-run Senate may adopt it as well despite Trump's opposition.
Any Trump veto would likely be sustained, but the upcoming battle will test Republican support for Trump's move, which even some of his allies view as a stretch — and a slap at lawmakers' control over the power of the federal purse.
A staff aide introduced the measure during a short pro forma session of the House in which Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., presided over an almost empty chamber.
"What the president is attempting is an unconstitutional power grab," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the sponsor of the resolution, on a call with reporters. "There is no emergency at the border."
Pelosi added that the measure would "reassert our system of checks and balances."
Should the House and the Senate initially approve the measure, Congress seems unlikely to muster the two-thirds majorities in each chamber that would be needed later to override a certain Trump veto.
The measure to block Trump's edict will be closely watched in the Senate, where moderates such as Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have signaled they would back it. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is only a reluctant supporter of Trump on the topic.
The battle is over an emergency declaration Trump issued to access billions of dollars beyond what Congress has authorized to start erecting border barriers. Building his proposed wall was the most visible trademark of Trump's presidential campaign.
Congress last week approved a vast spending bill providing nearly $1.4 billion to build 55 miles (89 kilometers) of border barriers in Texas' Rio Grande Valley while preventing a renewed government shutdown. That measure represented a rejection of Trump's demand for $5.7 billion to construct more than 200 miles (322 kilometers).
Besides signing the bill, Trump also declared a national emergency and used other authorities that he says give him access to an additional $6.6 billion for wall building. That money would be transferred from a federal asset forfeiture fund, Defense Department anti-drug efforts and a military construction fund. Federal officials have yet to identify which projects would be affected.
Castro said he has already garnered support from a majority of the Democratic-controlled House as co-sponsors and that he has at least one GOP sponsor, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.
Castro's measure says Trump's emergency declaration "is hereby terminated." Castro chairs the 38-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Pelosi wrote that the Republican president’s “decision to go outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process violates the Constitution and must be terminated.”
Chris Megerian , Los Angeles Times
President Trump is likely to celebrate if the final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III echoes Trump’s relentless claims of “no collusion” with Russia — or least doesn’t outline a criminal conspiracy between his 2016 campaign and the Kremlin.
No matter what Mueller concludes, the president remains in considerable legal jeopardy.
The Russia probe spawned a web of federal, state and congressional inquiries into virtually every aspect of Trump’s career — the company that bears his name, the campaign that won him the White House, the inauguration that celebrated his improbable victory, and the administration that he currently leads from the Oval Office.
Prosecutors in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Washington and Virginia are all pulling at threads that the FBI started unraveling two years ago. Legal problems, and possibly further indictments of Trump’s friends and aides, are likely to shadow the president for the rest of his White House tenure.
“Once you turn over one stone, there are a host of other matters that come to light,” said Bruce Udolf, who worked for the independent counsel’s office that investigated President Bill Clinton. “And you start turning over those stones as well.”
In addition to the 34 people charged by Mueller , other crimes have been uncovered in other jurisdictions.
The U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, for example, successfully prosecuted Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for hush money payments to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump. He pleaded guilty to two campaign finance violations, among other crimes.
Prosecutors from the same office also have issued subpoenas for records from Trump’s inauguration, including how the inaugural committee spent a record $107 million. The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn, is reportedly conducting a related probe.
So is the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., where a lobbyist, Sam Patten, has already pleaded guilty to helping a Ukrainian oligarch illegally buy tickets to Trump’s inauguration.
And the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia has charged an Iranian American businessman in illegal lobbying on behalf of Turkey, a case that grew out Mueller’s prosecution of Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn.
State officials are also digging into Trump. In December, the New York state attorney general forced the Donald J. Trump Foundation, once billed as the charitable arm of the president’s business empire, to dissolve and give away remaining assets under court supervision.
The attorney general, Barbara Underwood, accused the foundation of “functioning as little more than a checkbook” for Trump’s business and political interests, and of “a shocking pattern of illegality” that included unlawfully coordinating with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Her office also has pursued a lawsuit that could bar Trump and three of his adult children from the boards of other New York charities, as well as order them to pay millions of dollars in restitution and penalties.
In Congress, newly empowered House Democrats are rolling out investigations into Trump’s unreleased tax returns, a controversial proposal to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, the White House’s handling of security clearances for classified information, and more.
“Once the oversight process kicks in, you never know where it's going to end up,” said Jim Manley, a former senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. “With Democrats in control, no one can expect that they know how this is going to play out.”
Trump has slammed the congressional probes as “presidential harassment.” Democrats are going “nuts” while “looking at every aspect of my life, both financial and personal, even though there is no reason to be doing so,” he tweeted.
Congressional investigations can fizzle out in partisan finger-pointing. But some uncover real scandals and snowball into direct threats for the White House.
“Investigations take on a life of their own, and they usually end up much broader than what they originally looked at,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
The independent counsel appointed to investigate Clinton in 1994 started with a suspicious real estate transaction in Arkansas, for example. Four years later the office finished by probing the president’s affair with a White House intern, a scandal that led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House.
Watergate, the mother of all scandals, began with a bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972. It ended two years later with President Nixon resigning from office and many of his top aides in handcuffs.
“Every time we developed one lead, another one came along,” said Rufus Edmisten, who served as deputy counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee.
The Russia investigation has also produced unexpected leads, especially from Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer.
After he pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for the hush money payments, Cohen told the court in New York that Trump had directed the illegal scheme, the most direct accusation yet that the president was personally involved in a crime.
The escalating investigations in New York have alarmed Trump’s allies.
“I think that the Mueller investigation is not the president's biggest problem,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney, said recently on MSNBC. “Southern District of New York’s investigation has always been much more dangerous.”
Some prosecutions have pierced the murky world of foreign lobbying , which was loosely scrutinized before Mueller was appointed.
Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump’s national security advisor after lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, later admitted to working as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey during the 2016 campaign.
“Arguably you sold your country out,” a judge told him in December.
The Flynn investigation spawned another case . Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia recently charged Flynn’s former business partner Bijan Kian with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey. He has pleaded not guilty.
Also under indictment is Kamil Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman who hired Flynn’s firm and has denied that Ankara played any role in the contract.
A different scheme was unearthed while Mueller prosecuted Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, the chairman and deputy chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, for money laundering, conspiracy and other crimes related to their work as political consultants in Ukraine.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, a prominent law firm that worked with Manafort, agreed in January to forfeit $4.6 million from the project.
The Southern District of New York is also scrutinizing some of Manafort’s former colleagues, including former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, longtime Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta and former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber. No charges have been filed.
On the GOP, ‘zombies of death’ and the president
Bryan T. Stichfield, Ph.D.
Perhaps the greatest prophets not to come from the Middle East are Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Nicky Headon and, for good measure throw in the original drummer, Terry Chimes. Collectively, these guys were known as The Clash.
Often referred to as “the only band that mattered,” they were an English punk rock band and were active from the mid-1970s through the 1980s. Many of their songs were apocalyptic, political and all around incredible. There is nothing on the radio today that sounds like The Clash, and it’s unlikely there will be again.
Their most popular song was “Rock the Casbah,” but their best song was either “Straight to Hell” or “London Calling.” “Straight to Hell” is about societal decay, the abandonment of mixed-race children and drug addiction. “London Calling,” recorded in 1979, alludes to several ways the world could come to an end (including climate change); some of those methods are ushered in by “zombies of death.”
As I listen to these songs for the thousandth time and contemplate today’s decay of the Republican Party — its abandonment of the Constitution’s separation of powers, its mistreatment of immigrant children, its brain-dead response to climate change — I can’t help but wonder who today’s “zombies of death” might be? Who might be the soulless, brainless, automatons stumbling and dragging us toward a self-induced dystopia?
Images of U.S. Senate Republicans flash through my mind.
The vast majority of Senate Republicans obediently and mindlessly have followed their dear leader, President Donald J. Trump. There’s not an idea too absurd that Senate Republicans won’t get behind.
Rack up a huge deficit — they get behind Trump. Violate Article 1 of the Constitution — they get behind him. Separate infants and toddlers from their mothers at the southern border — they get behind him. Declare a national emergency over a manufactured crisis at that border — they get behind him. Deny 40 years of climate science — they get behind him.
As if declaring an unconstitutional national emergency for his broken campaign promise wasn’t absurd enough (remember, Mexico was supposed to pay for the wall), much of the money Trump is planning to use will come from the military. Senate Republicans are behind that absurd idea, too.
Never mind that the conservative Heritage Foundation has published several papers over the last few months arguing for more money and more thoughtful spending for the U.S. military. In fact, in an October 2018 report, the foundation concluded, “The Active Component of the U.S. military is two-thirds the size it should be, operates equipment that is older than should be the case, and is burdened by readiness levels that are problematic.”
The foundation’s index assesses the capabilities of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force as “marginal,” and that of the Marine Corps as “weak.”
So what do most of the Senate Republicans do? They obediently and mindlessly go along with the president in taking money from military readiness to pay for Trump’s broken campaign promise.
According to the Military Times, the following military projects are some of those that would be affected: “a new vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, drydock repairs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, F-35 hangar improvements at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, ongoing hospital construction at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and new family housing builds in South Korea, Italy and Wisconsin.”
The Heritage Foundation, and many other institutions on the left, right and center, have expressed concern about U.S. military readiness, logistics and morale. We have the most professional and dedicated force in the world, and its members now are suffering under the political leadership of zombies. This is why one of the most respected generals of the 21st century resigned as Trump’s
secretary of defense. James Mattis couldn’t be complicit in the zombies’ destruction of the United States.
Ask yourself two questions. First, how long has it been since you listened to The Clash? If the answer is “never” or “a long time ago,” don’t wait another day.
Second, other than Trump and his zombies, in whose interest is it to violate our Constitution and direct money away from the U.S. military for Trump’s ego project on the southern border?
If you’re stuck, think about who was most agitated by NATO expansion in the 1990s and 2000s.
The answer, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last week threatened the United States with an “asymmetric” response to the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. In his annual state of the nation address Wednesday, Putin warned that Russians would create new weapons and aim them at American targets, particularly “decision-making centers” in the United States.
In “London Calling,” The Clash warned of the “nuclear age.” Its dangers intensified last week, but the zombies of death still allow their leader to be guided by Putin rather than by the American professionals who have dedicated their lives to protecting this nation’s freedom.
Bryan T. Stinchfield, Ph.D., is a former Army officer who served in the U.S. intelligence community. He is an associate professor in the business, organizations and society department at Franklin & Marshall College.
Source: Pennsylvania Capital-Star Date: 2/22/2019
America has a bunch of foundational myths — George Washington and his famed cherry tree; the belief that anyone can get ahead if they just work hard enough; and the stubborn belief that our occasionally sputtering constitutional republic is still more exceptional than any other nation on Earth.
They’re core to our conception of ourselves as a people. But none is more foundational than our belief that the nation is a melting pot, the place where the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses can make a new start and breathe free.
But a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute casts some unsettling doubt on that core myth, finding some sharp, partisan divides on Americans’ support for both religious and racial pluralism. The poll of 1,073 adults, conducted Dec. 17-23, 2018, had a margin of error of 3.3 percent.
For instance, “nearly half of Americans generally support a racially and ethnically diverse vision of the United States, although there are moderate divisions by race,” the poll found:
“When asked to put themselves on a scale, where one end is the statement, ‘I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation made up of people from all over the world,’ and the other end is the statement, “I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people from Western European heritage,” 47 percent of Americans mostly agree with the first statement, while less than one in ten (9 percent) Americans mostly agree with the second statement, and 39 percent place themselves in the middle of the scale.”
In addition, “nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Democrats, compared to only three in ten (29 percent) Republicans, mostly prefer a country with racial and ethnic diversity. Republicans are nearly twice as likely as Democrats to state a preference for a Western European majority in the country (13 percent vs. 7 percent). Additionally, over half (56 percent) of Republicans place themselves somewhere in the middle on this issue, compared to one-quarter (25 percent) of Democrats. Independents closely resemble Americans in general on this question,” the poll found.
When they were asked the same question about religion, the result was much the same:
“When asked to put themselves on a scale, where one end is the statement, ‘I would prefer the U.S. to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions,’ and the other end is the
statement, ‘I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith,’ Americans are likelier to prefer religious diversity, although a significant number are divided,” the poll found. “About one-third (34 percent) mostly agree with the first statement, while approximately one-quarter (24 percent) mostly agree with the second statement and 37 percent position themselves in the middle of the scale.”
The poll found that more than half of Democrats (54 percent), compared to only one in 10 Republicans (12 percent) mostly preferred religious diversity. Four in 10 Republican respondents (40 percent) preferred a Christian majority, compared to only 14 percent of Democrats. In addition, a plurality of Republicans (45 percent) and nearly a third of Democrats (29 percent) put themselves in the middle of the scale. Independents more closely resembled Americans in general on that question, the poll found.
The numbers go a long way toward explaining our current, stark polarization and why President Donald Trump’s strongman rhetoric on immigration — at least when it comes to brown- and black-skinned people — resonates with a certain sector of the Republican base.
The bleaker corners of the GOP may want to make America great again, but it’s a very specific vision of an America that doesn’t really exist anymore and as demographic trends clearly indicate, will vanish entirely in the coming decades.
As a recent Brookings Institution analysis makes clear , current racial minorities are the “primary demographic engine of the nation’s future growth, countering an aging, slow-growing, and soon to be declining white population,” and that America will become minority white by 2045.
By then, whites will make up 49.7 percent of the population, compared to 24.6 percent for Hispanics, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians, and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations, the Brookings analysis found.
“The shift is the result of two trends. First, between 2018 and 2060, gains will continue in the combined racial minority populations, growing by 74 percent,” Brookings scholar William H. Frey wrote. “Second, during this time frame, the aging white population will see a modest immediate gain through 2024, and then experience a long-term decline through 2060, a consequence of more deaths than births.”
Those profound divisions don’t augur well for our ability to reach consensus on the big questions.
As The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes, if one group of Americans doesn’t think highly of religious diversity, how can we ensure that we protect religious freedoms for all Americans? And if a significant chunk of Americans disdain diversity, how can we ensure equal protection under the law for all of us — irrespective of skin color, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, or gender identity?
More importantly, if a vast segment of Americans doesn’t believe that certain people even belong in the United States, how can we ever hope to reach accommodation on immigration reform — which remains one of the great public policy challenges of the last two decades?
These aren’t mere hypotheticals — they’re actual policy and moral challenges in the face of a nation that is literally changing under our feet every day.
If there’s a ray of hope here, it’s that most Americans are optimistic about the country’s ability to reach across racial divides to solve problems, the poll finds. But they’re “substantially more pessimistic about the country’s ability to heal its political divisions,” the poll found.
Healing those divides takes work. And they’re challenges that no border wall, regardless of how allegedly big and great it is, can hope to answer or resolve.
By: Elaine S. Povich
HARTFORD, Conn. — The woman in the fleece-lined flannel shirt stood quietly, eyes mostly downcast, glancing occasionally at her public defender and up at the white-haired judge. Speaking softly, Caitlin Fogerty, 35, said she was sorry for how she had mistreated Hannah, the German shepherd, and would never do it again.
But at another table in the unremarkable courtroom at Hartford Community Court stood University of Connecticut law professor Jessica Rubin and two of her students. They told of how Hannah, left for more than a year in the care of Fogerty — a former dog groomer — had lost nearly a fifth of her weight and was so neglected that she contracted scabies, making her fur fall out, some of it permanently. The animal suffered mental distress, too, they said, which made her distrustful of humans.
“[Fogerty] really ruined this animal on two levels,” Rubin said.
The prosecutor argued for a pretrial diversion program that would require Fogarty, a first-time offender, to repay $1,125 in veterinary bills and pledge not to work with dogs for two years — but leave Fogarty without a criminal record.
Veteran Judge John F. Mulcahy Jr. pondered aloud what might prevent pet owners from entrusting their animals to Fogerty again someday, if she had no record. The judge decided not to grant the accelerated rehabilitation. He scheduled the case for further court proceedings in March. Fogerty declined comment.
The prosecutor, Tom O’Brien, later said the advocates made all the difference in that decision.
“They had information and a methodical approach,” O’Brien said. “The animal can’t speak for itself.”
The case presented a clear illustration of Connecticut’s “Desmond’s Law,” named after a boxer-pit bull mixed breed who was brutally beaten, starved, strangled to death and dumped. The alleged perpetrator got a deal similar to the one initially proposed for Fogerty and was given no jail time. The first-in-the-nation law permits animal advocates in courtrooms for abuse cases involving dogs and cats.
Animal-loving lawmakers in Maine hope to pass a similar law this session prompted by the death of Franky, a pug-terrier mixed breed. And legislators in a handful of other states — Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island among them — are getting into the animal advocacy act as well. Bills have been filed in several of those states and others are in the planning stages, most using the Connecticut law, enacted in late 2016 , as a model.
They are just the latest in a spate of new laws governing animal-related legal proceedings. California has a new statute that outlines criteria judges can use to determine what's best for a pet in a divorce custody case . And Arizona is cracking down on fake service dogs .
Technically, the court advocates are not representing the dogs or cats. But they are charged with providing information to the judge and the prosecutors about the circumstances surrounding a case involving animals, typically cruelty or neglect charges. Either prosecutors or judges can request the advocates.
Animal groups lobbying for the laws say prosecutors often are well-intentioned but have little time to research the animal cases themselves, meaning that alleged animal abusers often get light sentences or have their cases dismissed for lack of evidence.
But some defense attorneys argue that the advocates unduly bias both the judge and the court against defendants.
The criminal justice system is already “very heavily balanced against the accused,” said Oscar Michelen, a defense attorney and adjunct law professor at Touro College in New York. Animal advocates increase that bias, he said by phone from his Long Island office.
The Connecticut law allows law students to participate in courtroom activities as long as they are supervised by an attorney.
“The role is to advocate for the interests of justice and make recommendations and present information to the court,” said Rubin, owner of a shepherd mix named Holly and a hound mix named Cyndea.
The lawyers and law students working the cases do so without pay or cost to the courts, she said. In her program, the students get academic credit as well as courtroom and investigatory experience.
UConn law student Shaun Moloney had helped argue Hannah’s case before the judge, noting that Fogerty had not taken the dog to the vet for more than a year while she was caring for the pet, despite her skin disease. “These charges are serious and likely to recur,” Moloney said at court.
In the Desmond’s Law case that prompted the statute, the alleged perpetrator was placed in an accelerated rehabilitation program, after which his record could be expunged.
A group of animal supporters who call themselves Desmond’s Army attend many Connecticut cases to observe and make their presence known, wearing bright purple shirts or sweatshirts.
John Frascatore, a retired information technology worker and a member of the group, said on a recent afternoon that he was fresh from a case involving a man accused of killing four kittens and leaving them on his former girlfriend’s steps to punish her for breaking up with him. While that case was worked out behind closed doors, Frascatore said the group’s presence in open court was influential.
“The reason we do this is to show the court and the state attorney’s office that we don’t take animal abuse lightly,” he said. “We want the court to be aware someone’s watching.”
Doug Ovian, Fogerty’s public defender in Hartford, acknowledged that having animal advocates in the courtroom worked against his client in this case, but given the new law, he thinks it’s better to expand their understanding of the defense point of view rather than disregard them.
He encourages UConn faculty and students specializing in animal cases to give the same consideration to defendants as criminal law students do.
“It’s important [for defense attorneys] to engage with the [UConn] animal law clinic as much as the prosecutors do,” he added, “and for judges to fairly balance the arguments made by one voice for the defendants versus two or more against them.”
David Rosengard, a staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national group based in California, said the drive for animal advocates in courts “is a burgeoning movement. We heard a lot of those [same] concerns and critiques around human crime victim advocates. We now have [human] victims’ advocates around the country, and the sky hasn’t fallen.”
But Michelen said the advocates present “another voice ringing” against defendants. “Sometimes it seems like people are more concerned about abuse against animals than they are of children or domestic violence,” he said.
But research shows the two are linked.
A seminal study, “ The Relationship of Animal Abuse to Violence and Other Forms of Antisocial Behavior ,” published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 1999, linked animal abuse not only to domestic violence, which had long been documented, but also to other forms of antisocial activity, including property offenses, drug offenses and public disorder offenses.
A study published in 2018, “ An Exploratory Study of Domestic Violence: Perpetrators' Reports of Violence Against Animals ,” led by a group of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and Long Island University, found that of inmates incarcerated for domestic violence, 81 percent reported perpetrating animal cruelty in their lifetime.
The American Kennel Club, famous for the Westminster Dog Show held every February in New York, also is wary of animal advocacy laws, saying that anything that smacks of giving “personhood” traits to animals could undermine ownership rights.
Phil Guidry, director of policy analysis and government relations at the AKC, said his organization wants to make sure the advocacy laws are not confused with “guardians ad litem” for children, a Latin legal term that means someone who is appointed to protect the interests of a minor. The Connecticut law doesn’t do that, and he would hope other states follow that model.
“In the legal system, we treat animals as property,” he said. “It has created a very reliable system in this country. It doesn’t mean we care less for animals — we just want to make sure that legal term continues. With bills pending in other states, we hope they will continue to be treated as property under the law, and should those assurances be placed in other legislation, we have no other concerns.”
Michigan state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat, is planning to introduce an animal advocates bill this session as part of a package of animal-related bills, including ones to prohibit devocalization of animals unless there is a medial purpose, require veterinarians to provide a fact sheet to clients before declawing an animal, and to ban private ownership of nonhuman primates.
“We know that Michigan can do better in protecting animals against cruelty,” said Hammoud, owner of a half Maltese, half Shih Tzu named Kussa, which means “squash” in Arabic. (He said the dog was the size of a traditional stuffed squash dish as a puppy.) “These animal advocates investigate the facts and then present recommendations to the judges, all pro bono.”
Maine state Rep. Dale Denno , a Democrat who owns a 16-year-old dachshund named Sebastian, said he will introduce similar legislation in his state this year, modeled on Connecticut’s law.
At present, he said, “It’s very easy for judges — if there’s nobody there looking out for the animal, and you have a heavy caseload — it’s easy to wrap up the case [with a plea deal and no record]. If the abuse is egregious, we believe the person should have a record, so if they go to get an animal, there’s a record of cruelty.”
VATICAN CITY — The lone U.S. bishop scheduled to address Pope Francis’ global summit on clergy sex abuse on Friday called for members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to police each other’s behavior and offered the most concrete proposal yet for dealing with prelates who mishandle abuse allegations against priests or face claims of sexual misconduct themselves .
In his speech on the conference’s second day, Cardinal Blase Cupich, of Chicago, urged his colleagues to empower him and other metropolitan archbishops to investigate their colleagues in neighboring dioceses. Another authority would be appointed to do so in cases in which the archbishop himself was accused.
The recommendation stands at odds with an alternative proposition, floated last fall by bishops in the United States, to let a board led by Catholic laity investigate allegations against prelates.
“This past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops,” Cupich said. “But they also reveal in too many cases an inadequate understanding [of] the relationship between the pope and the bishops, bishops among themselves … and the role of bishops’ conferences.”
Cupich had proposed a similar suggestion at a meeting of U.S. bishops in November , when it became clear that the Vatican and many of his colleagues were uncomfortable with the idea of investigations led by civilians outside the church’s traditional leadership structure.
But by endorsing it again Friday from a Vatican pulpit — and before an audience of more than 190 bishops and religious superiors from around the world — Cupich helped propel to the forefront his solution to the most acute problem currently vexing the hierarchy in the United States .
While bishops from some parts of the world have spent the opening stretch of Francis’ four-day summit struggling to accept that clergy sex abuse is a problem in their nations at all, the United States and other Western countries are enduring a second wave of the crisis.
In the last year, nearly all of the scandals that have erupted in the American church — from the allegations against now defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to the Pennsylvania grand jury report that implicated the state’s bishops in decades of systematic cover-up — have been focused less on individual abusers than on the church leaders who enabled them by turning a blind eye.
McCarrick’s alleged abuse of seminarians and minors, for instance, is said to have been an open secret for years in some corners of the hierarchy before news emerged last summer that two of the four dioceses he led in his career had secretly paid settlements to his victims, leading to his suspension and ultimate laicization last week.
Like other bishops, he operated with relative impunity, answering only to the pope. They have been historically hesitant to take on the responsibility of policing each other’s conduct.
Still, Cupich said Friday that he and his colleagues cannot rely on the Holy See to “come up with all the answers.”
“We have to come to an ownership that I am responsible as a bishop but also that we are, together, as a college of bishops responsible, too,” he said at an afternoon news conference. “What happens in one place happens to us all.”
The plan the cardinal described Friday would grant new authority to metropolitan archbishops — a title given to those prelates tasked with both leading an archdiocese and supervising bishops in nearby dioceses.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, for example, is one of 34 metropolitan archbishops in the U.S. and presides over a province that includes the seven other Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. But the role is largely an honorific title in the modern Catholic Church with no significant authority.
Under Cupich’s proposal, complaints against prelates would come to the metropolitan archbishop and the Vatican’s top diplomat in each country through “independent reporting mechanisms,” such as a toll-free hotline and a website that U.S. bishops are scheduled to launch this summer to receive complaints against prelates.
Those authorities would investigate and make ultimate recommendations to the Vatican on the action to be taken. Cupich also stressed Friday that civilian experts also should be involved to stress the transparency of the investigations. Ultimate authority still would rest with the pope.
“It’s a more regional approach," Cupich said, explaining his plan in more detail after his speech. “I feel that’s important simply because part of the follow-up is not just trying the case or doing the investigation, but offering pastoral care to the person who has been victimized.”
Despite the cardinal’s eagerness to offer specifics Friday, it remained unclear whether his ideas had gained traction — either with his audience, which remained cloistered behind closed doors as it has throughout the summit, or the abuse victims who have camped outside in St. Peter’s Square all week.
Many of those victims pointed out that McCarrick himself was the metropolitan archbishop of Washington when his accusers came forward. They questioned how this system would work with a prelate with his own problems at the helm and insisted that after years of cover-up the time for allowing the bishops to police each other was over.
West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, a Philadelphia native, presided for years despite concerns about his conduct with junior priests or seminarians. He left his post last fall amid an investigation into sexual harassment claims.
As for Cupich’s colleagues in the hierarchy, only a handful spoke publicly about the proposal.
“It’s an important proposal and it needs to be studied and brought forward,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, of Malta, who along with Cupich is one of the organizers of this week’s conference. “We need to be together when it comes to structures of responsibility.”
Also unclear was how it would fare against other competing ideas.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo — the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, who is representing the United States at the summit this week as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — had hoped that he and his colleagues could vote last fall on a proposal for laity-led investigations of problem prelates.
Vatican officials ultimately waved them off making any decisions , amid concerns over the amount of authority the idea would place in the hands of those outside the hierarchy. But it was clear from that meeting in Baltimore, that many of the bishops in the United States were also leery of the idea ; it may not have passed even if they had been allowed to cast ballots.
Chaput, for instance, spoke in favor of Cupich’s plan in November.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, had a hand in another alternative idea early in Francis’ papacy. As a member of the pope’s Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, he was part of the group that proposed a first-of-its-kind Vatican tribunal to adjudicate bishop sex-abuse issues.
Francis initially endorsed the idea, only to abandon the plan within a year amid strong resistance within his own hierarchy.
O’Malley, speaking at a news conference Friday, stopped short of endorsing Cupich’s plan outright but stressed the need for some structure to address the problem.
“We need some very clear protocols,” he said. “In the United States, it’s at the upper most of our minds right now.”
He added later: “Transparency is really what the way forward is about. We have to confront our sinfulness and deal with it, not ignore it and sweep it under the carpet,
Cupich, Scicluna and the conference’s other organizers have said they will remain in Rome after the summit closes Sunday to work on a plan to implement specific new anti-abuse measures.
PennLive’s annual scorecard highlighting a growing number of state government employees earning six figures frustrated some readers because they couldn’t readily identify a problem or a villain.
In online comments, most didn’t launch into a rant about overpaid government employees but instead debated whether paying high salaries to more people matters.
The muted reaction to the objective fact that the $100k Club has grown significantly may be partly a result of the recent federal government shutdown, which was a reminder that many government employees work hard like the rest of us and at times struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, they do jobs we depend on, for instance ensuring food safety and processing our tax refunds.
It’s true there isn’t an obvious outrage or villain in this year’s $100k Club accounting. But since these folks are working on the public’s dime – their salaries contribute the overall cost of government in Pennsylvania (and dent your take-home pay) -- taxpayers should be interested in, if not concerned about, a pattern of growth.
And state employees are just part of the tab for public employment – there are also federal, county and municipal employees.
Among PennLive’s findings for 2018:
All of which deserves closer scrutiny because -- it bears repeating -- it’s your money.
Reporter Jan Murphy noted, “All of the earnings are paid with public funds. The source of that money may include tax dollars, agency earnings, fines, and federal funds, to name a few.”
A case can be made for having fewer state employees and paying at least some of them more, especially in categories critical to public health and safety. However without even delving into that, there are obvious ways to save:
State government administrators and elected officials (who are themselves beneficiaries of our largesse) owe it to us to demonstrate that they are spending every public-employment dime wisely.
In our words
In our words: Tax return strategies and President Trump's dangerous rhetoric [opinion]
THE LNP EDITORIAL BOARD
With tax season now in full swing, the Internal Revenue Service reports that the size of the average federal refund thus far is down 8.7 percent. Filers saw an average refund of $2,135 last year and this year’s average refund has been about $1,949. But tax refunds (or bills) can vary. In a story headlined “Tax season shock” in last weekend’s Sunday LNP, staff writer Jeff Hawkes wrote, “The fact is, your tax preparer is probably not to blame. And while the average refund is smaller, the tax reform law that took effect in 2018 has some tax filers receiving bigger refunds than ever.”
“Your goal is to get a zero refund at the end of the year.” That quote stood out to us in Hawkes’ story. It’s from Amanda Taraborelli of Manada Tax Service in East Hempfield Township.
Certainly, some have philosophical differences when it comes to tax strategies. Some love that big refund check in the spring. But we think the better strategy, and Taraborelli agrees, is ... well, we’ll let her explain it fully:
“I don’t like to give the government any more free money than they already get. Your goal is to get a zero refund at the end of the year. That way you get your money to spend through the year as you wish, and don’t give the government an interest-free loan.”
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, signed by President Donald Trump in December 2017, cut individual income tax rates and doubled the standard deduction, while eliminating personal exemptions and most itemized deductions. CNN Money estimated that the overhaul gave the average tax filer in Pennsylvania a tax cut of $1,330.
But there’s a catch with that. Depending on how withholdings were adjusted following the tax overhaul, some workers got their tax cut a little bit at a time, in the form of slightly higher paychecks throughout 2018.
So the tax cut hasn’t necessarily shown up as a “bonus” this winter for the first wave of tax filers.
“And that can be painful for those who had plans for the hundreds of extra dollars they were expecting in their refund,” Hawkes wrote.
Painful, for sure. But we don’t think it should be a surprise.
This may sting to read — and we’ve been in the same situation ourselves — but this is a problem many have created for themselves through unsound financial planning.
Some count on their tax refunds for home repairs or upgrades, for major purchases, for a little vacation or, more crucially, for paying off debt or property taxes.
“The truth is, many Americans have come to rely on refunds,” wrote The Associated Press’ Sarah Skidmore Sell. “About three-quarters of U.S. taxpayers typically get one and they had averaged around $2,800. For some low-income households it is the biggest cash infusion of the year.”
We get it. But it’s such a risky proposition. Especially when counting on an annual windfall while navigating byzantine and ever-changing tax laws.
We recommend the less risky, conservative approach.
To get closer to that zero owed/zero refund scenario that provides the most money throughout the year and lessens (a little bit, anyway) stress during tax season, talk to a tax accountant or Google “how to get zero tax refund.” There are plenty of reputable online articles and calculators offering solid advice.
And now is the time to do it for next year’s taxes, before too many 2019 paydays — with potentially incorrect withholdings — come and go.
Writing this month on Investopedia, Amy Fontinelle states: “It sometimes takes considerable effort to figure out what amount you should really have withheld from each paycheck. ... However, a couple of hours now can either increase your monthly cash flow for the rest of the year or save you from an unexpected bill at tax time. Having money now is more valuable than having the same money in the future.”
A little bit of planning can make your finances a lot better.
Go for that zero.
If the president of the United States is going to keep saying it, we will keep pushing back.
On Sunday, President Trump tweeted: “THE RIGGED AND CORRUPT MEDIA IS THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted “The Press has never been more dishonest than it is today. Stories are written that have absolutely no basis in fact.” And in another tweet he called The New York Times “a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
The president’s statements are untrue, make life more dangerous for journalists and represent a serious threat to our democracy, in which a free press — guaranteed in the First Amendment — is an indispensable component.
New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger stated: “The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is not just false, it’s dangerous. It has an ugly history of being wielded by dictators and tyrants who sought to control public information. And it is particularly reckless coming from someone whose office gives him broad powers to fight or imprison the nation’s enemies.”
And then there were the poignant words this week of Rachael Pacella , a reporter for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland: “As one of six survivors of our nation’s only newsroom mass shooting, seeing generalized media-bashing tweets from the president makes me fear for my life. His words have power, and give bad actors justification to act.”
And there are “bad actors” out there. A U.S. Coast Guard officer and self-identified white nationalist was arrested last week on drug and gun charges while prosecutors gather evidence to support domestic terrorism charges. The Washington Post reports that , “as part of his plot to ‘kill almost every last person on the earth’ ... (he) compiled a hit list of prominent politicians and cable TV journalists.”
These are dangerous times. We implore President Trump to stop using such inflammatory and divisive rhetoric. The media are not the enemy of the American people. We are the American people.