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Voices carry

Government reps encourage Allegheny Community Center to speak up about inadequate services

Times Observer photos by Lorri Drumm Department of Aging Secretary Robert Torres speaks to a packed room at the Allegheny Community Center in Warren on Thursday. Torres and Department of Community and Economic Development Northwest Regional Director Tina Mengine hosted a listening session to talk about Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore PA initiative.

It was standing-room-only at the Allegheny Community Center in Warren on Thursday as people gathered to tell stories of their inability to connect to the outside world from either their phones or computers.

Their stories were heard by government officials promoting state legislation intended to remedy that issue.

In the end, it was clear that improving broadband service and infrastructure won’t be a quick fix, and those who pay for inferior services need to make their voices heard — even outside of that meeting room.

Department of Aging Secretary Robert Torres and Department of Community and Economic Development Northwest Regional Director Tina Mengine hosted a listening session there to talk about Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore PA initiative.

Mengine took the microphone first, describing Restore PA as a “bipartisan effort to instill $4.5 billion into the state in the next four years.”

Times Observer photos by Lorri Drumm Department of Community and Economic Development Northwest Regional Director Tina Mengine answers questions with Department of Aging Secretary Robert Torres at the Allegheny Community Center in Warren on Thursday. Torres and Mengine hosted a listening session to talk about Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore PA initiative.

The funds would be used to improve broadband access and address issues including an aging infrastructure, blight, storm preparedness, and disaster recovery throughout the entire state, including rural areas.

The income would be generated through a severance tax on drilling of natural gas, according to Mengine. Out of 34 states that produce natural gas, Pennsylvania is the second top producer. Texas produces the most.

While Pennsylvania imposes an impact fee, there is currently no severance tax.

“The impact fee is not delivering the amount of revenue that a severance tax would,” Mengine explained.

Restore PA proposes a 7.5-percent severance tax be imposed on companies that produce natural gas.

Proposing a new tax doesn’t come without objections, but Mengine said some of the narrative she’s heard in those objections are “misguided.”

Some objections assert that, if you tax revenue, companies will leave the state, Mengine said.

“I believe companies will come where the gas is,” she said.

Torres then addressed issues with broadband access in rural communities. “Residents of rural communities have been denied access,” he said. “They pay more for substandard service.”

Torres added that modern-day advances are intended to improve the quality of life but depend on high-quality broadband access. People in rural communities should “have the same advantages as any other resident of the state,” he said.

Following a description of some of the work being done by the Council on Aging and the Department of Aging, Torres opened the floor for questions.

As the microphone made its way around the room, a resident of the Russell area , just eight miles from Warren, described obstacles she and her family face with inferior internet and phone service. She spoke about an elderly relative whose health is impacted as he can’t send data about his defibrillator. She said this relative pays for two providers.

She added that her son can’t take an online course from home and she can’t even shop online.

Torres responded by stating the woman’s concerns are an example of “why this project is so important.” He added that he was a school board member years ago and was concerned at the time about the divide for students across the state due to the variance in broadband access. “And here we are,” he said.

One person in attendance asked when to expect some action on the Restore PA proposal. “We hope this fall.” Mengine said. “implementation will happen after that. It’s not a quick fix.”

Another person stated she is a voter from Youngsville and wanted to know what she needs to do to support the initiative. Torres told her that the legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate. He encouraged everyone in support of the initiative to contact their legislators in support of House Bill 1585 and Senate Bill 725.

“Letting your voices be heard is super important,” he said.

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