Incumbent Eggleston: ‘We’ve just scratched the surface in the first term’

Warren County’s nominees for County Commissioner; Republicans Kafferlin and Durbin and Democrats Eggleston and Giannini.

¯ Why are you running for re-election?

¯ What do you view as the major accomplishments of your first term?

¯ You’ve put forward a lot of ideas (task forces) but haven’t really delivered much. How would you challenge that assertion?

¯ Discord has been a theme of this board. Every few months, there’s a meeting where one or more of you go on the attack, dredging items up that are months – or years – old. Why should we re-elect individuals on that board which, by any measure, has produced a toxic environment at the courthouse?

¯ There have been things you’ve done – the “Cindy Tracker” that purportedly measured how often Commissioner Morrison has been in the office as well as estimating that she works two hours a week and makes $500 an hour as a result – that, frankly, look petty. Why have they been important issues to raise?

¯ You had the “advantage” of having your father in the position before you ran, so you had an inside insight, a level of expectation. In what ways did your first term match those expectations. In what ways did it not.

¯ What do you see in the future for Warren County? What do you hope to accomplish if elected to another term?

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Commissioner Jeff Eggleston is ready for a second term and he sees “a clear case for re-election.”

Despite the distractions, the first term of the current county commissioners has been a successful one and there is plenty more to be done, he said.

“I think we’ve just scratched the surface in the first term,” Eggleston said. “I think that Warren County is at a crossroads. It’s at a point where there are a lot of people that are more willing to accept change and move the county forward than ever before.”

“I think this is a point where we are either going to grow, develop, and move forward, or we’re going to continue to stagnate,” Eggleston said. “That’s why we need people that are going to be leaders. That are going to make tough decisions. That are going to constantly try to improve the status quo and find new ways to solve old problems.”

“I think I can do that,” he said. “I believe that I’ve shown that I have a track record of leadership and I’ve brought people together that normally wouldn’t be brought together.”

Moving the county forward would make it a place where people want to stay.

“When I look at my kids, I want them to want to live here. I want them to stay here. I want them to grow up here,” Eggleston said. “I think if I can make the county a place where the kids will want to stay and live and grow, raise a family, I think that I would be a successful commissioner.”

So far, he sees plenty of accomplishment toward that goal.

“The northern Pennsylvania Regional College — I was part of the team that pitched Warren County as a location for it,” Eggleston said. “I’m the one who drove the investment in the PNC building and pushed for county investment. I’m the one who pushed for the loan to the WCDA which was paid back in full on the deadline.”

“The reason that I’m especially proud of that, the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College is the first major post-secondary investment in the county by the state of Pennsylvania in well over 40 years,” he said. “It is a tool that local businesses are going to use for years to come to train and re-train their workers for the jobs of the future and the jobs that we have available now.”

“When I ran in 2015, everybody talked about having a community college here, having some kind of college or technical school,” he said. “The Northern Pennsylvania Regional College covers all of those bases and at a very low cost.”

Bringing the NPRC to the region had the side benefit of serving as the fulcrum for a renovation project.

“The PNC Building probably would have been condemned, in my opinion, in the next 10 years,” Eggleston said. “The roof, the top floors, were in a huge state of disrepair. There was no private interest in that building other than the folks on the first floor.”

“We managed to take what was essentially $100,000 of county investment and bring down over $2 million in outside investment to redevelop the building,” he said. “Now it’s not only habitable, but the NPRC is expanding into the space.”

When he campaigned last time, the county’s website was near the top of his list.

“I’m very proud of the website redevelopment,” Eggleston said. “I built the website. I developed it.”

“We would have had to pay probably at least $10,000… to develop the site, maybe even more,” he said. “We essentially got it for nothing.”

That new site has been recognized at the state level. “It won the 2017 Excellence Award from County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania,” he said. “Since then I’ve been providing tech support and doing work on it.”

In addition to information about county government and services, the site includes assessment data and has streamlined requests and forms.

“We put the assessment data online for free, which I think it is a very underrated achievement,” Eggleston said. “Plenty of people wanted to charge for the data. I pushed for it to be free. It’s the people’s information. They should have access to it.”

That has had the side benefit of clearing up time in the assessment department.

“We’ve actually had a dramatic decrease in foot traffic to the assessment office which allows them to do their actual job which is to go out and make sure the tax rolls are up to date instead of printing out tons of documents for people and charging them a buck or whatever to get their data,” he said. “Now they can get it for free. It’s online. I know the realtors’ organizations are doing cartwheels down the street.”

“We’ve put tons of forms on the site, the right-to-know form on the site so it’s easier for people to ask for information through the site,” he said. “As a result, we’ve gotten at least 400 percent increase in the number of requests we’ve gotten for information. It’s easier for people to access information. It’s easier for us to respond to people electronically.”

One of Eggleston’s accomplishments was a personal one.

“I would look at getting the county commissioner association award for the 2018 Outstanding Commissioner of the Year as a big accomplishment,” he said. “I’m the first commissioner from Warren County to ever win the award.”

“That organization has a great deal of clout and prestige,” he said. “Any award that you would get from them is a real bonus.”

He is also proud of making a change that came with very little fanfare.

“I’m really proud of the BEi agreements that we’ve come up with, where we’ve integrated persons with disabilities into the workforce at the county,” he said. “They’ve brought a real positive vibe to the county and the courthouse. Everybody that I’ve talked to — the staff and the directors — really are happy with that.”

“I think that’s something that we could have easily turned away from,” Eggleston said. “Instead we embraced it. It solved a problem for BEi. They needed to integrate their workers into the workforce, due to state regulations.”

Other items on the accomplishments list unfinished and things he can’t claim primary credit for.

“We’re very close to getting Grunderville Landfill closed,” Eggleston said. “We’re the first ones to really make a big push with DEP and others to finally file closure certification. Once it’s closed we can use that money for recycling and redevelopment.”

“The radio equipment upgrade is a huge deal,” he said. “We managed to negotiate a price that was two-thirds of what Erie paid for their equipment. We have better connectivity in rural areas. That upgrade is going to make a big difference with first responders.”

“The last thing would be the ABM agreement,” Eggleston said. “Half of its being paid from energy savings that we’re going to accrue over the next 15 years. That’s half that the taxpayers were going to pay in energy anyway. Now it’s going to upgrading and redeveloping systems that were failing anyway. The other half is being financed with the money that we spend every year replacing these systems anyway.”

Moving forward, Eggleston’s projects are generating ideas.

“The task forces are a planning tool,” he said. “To me, it’s all about bringing all of the best people together and planning for the future.”

“Some of the recommendations in these reports are being acted upon now,” Eggleston said. “You have to understand, we got the redevelopment task force report done at the very end of last year, so we’ve only had five months to move on the recommendations.”

“One is the residential LERTA program which on Monday the City of Warren’s going to be having a public hearing and voting on it,” he said. “That’s something that when we first started talking about it, nobody thought it was ever going to happen. We’ve had broad support from the biggest municipalities in the county.”

“The second thing is the knock-down crew which was one of the recommendations,” Eggleston said. “We’ve identified six properties that we think fit into getting them knocked down through the blighted process. We’ve allocated resources to them.”

“There are more of those projects that are going to be implemented,” he said. “One of the big things over the next year that we’re going to be doing is incorporating all of these recommendations into the comprehensive plan for the county which hasn’t been updated in eight years.”

Action or not, the task forces are already saving the county dollars.

“The big thing with the task forces is, all of these recommendations save us money in the comprehensive plan,” he said. “These reports are things that we would normally pay $10,000 to a consultant to do. We’re doing them ourselves. That in and of itself saves us money.”

That ideas from the task forces are dropping like ripe fruit is not a bad thing.

“I wish the government could get things done in two months. I wish I could just decree this and that,” Eggleston said. “That’s not how it works. It shouldn’t work that way. Part of the reason government moves so slow is to try to prevent us from screwing it up too bad. We’re giving everybody an opportunity to review what’s done so that everybody’s voice is heard. The worst decisions that have been made, whether you’re at county, state, or federal, have been made haphazardly, with little deliberation.”

“With some of these, because I realize they’re big deals, I take my time with them,” he said. “I’d rather have broad buy-in with them than have some kind of a slapped-together thing.”

Being a commissioner for the last three-plus years has not always been easy, but Eggleston sees a generally good working environment in the courthouse.

“I would disagree that there’s a toxic environment at the courthouse,” he said. “There’s a toxic environment perhaps in the commissioners’ office. I don’t know that at this point there’s a toxic environment in the courthouse.”

“(Commissioner) Ben (Kafferlin) and I have done everything we can to focus on getting the job done,” Eggleston said. “Have there been times where we allowed ourselves to try to respond to some of the various accusations that have been made against us and that’s been perceived as toxic, perhaps. We’ve never run ads against Commissioner (Cindy) Morrison in the Guide accusing her of a hundred different things.”

“The biggest complaint that I’ve made has been the issue of showing up and doing the work,” he said. “No one’s ever responded to it. Would I rather spend my time just talking about issues? Absolutely. I care very deeply about this job. At times, I’ve probably been too passionate about the job and that can come across as tough or critical.”

“That’s my mistake,” he said. “I need to understand that I need to temper my obsession with this work and be more forgiving of the situation. That’s on me. There’ve been a couple times that I feel like I did not handle things the best that I could.”

He understands that there have been times his actions have been criticized.

“The only request that I would make of everybody that would judge me for that would be to have them spend some time in a situation where someone’s publicly going after you and to not say anything about it,” Eggleston said. “It’s a real challenge.”

“That’s just based on the stuff that people see in the newspaper,” he said. “They don’t see all the stuff that goes on behind closed doors. The more I talk about it, the more everybody says, ‘They’re bickering.'”

“That’s why I’ve avoided even discussing these,” he said. “Setting the record straight at this point… it’s never going to be set straight. For eternity it’s going to be he-said-she-said.”

Instead of focusing on the negative, “My pitch in this election cycle’s been, who’s done the most work for you? I would challenge them to find another commissioners’ office that has double-timed it the way we have over the past three-and-a-half years.”

He’s been working to create a positive culture at the courthouse. “I have funded and staged a Christmas party for all of the staff every year and we’ve had a marvelous time,” he said. “I set up coffee events every Friday where we randomly have 10 employees come down and have coffee with the commissioners. We’ve worked really hard with our unions to have a good relationship with the workers and the people in the courthouse and we’ve done everything we can to listen to their needs and concerns. That’s why I challenge the issue of a toxic environment.”

But, the conflict in the commissioners’ office has been quite public at times.

“Obviously I regret this whole concept of a Cindy Tracker,” Eggleston said. “At the time, I felt like it was important to convey to people what the literal time was. There’s no other way to do it. I wasn’t thinking politically, I was thinking from an honest perspective. If I was honest with everybody, it would pay off. Instead, there were a lot of people… they don’t care what my perspective was. Why are you wasting your time with this?”

“I work really hard at this job. I don’t ask much from anybody else except to just respect me and respect that I’m trying to do what’s best for the community,” he said “I don’t expect everybody to just agree with me. It was very hard to work and to be attacked and accused of a variety of things by someone who, from my perspective, whether anybody agrees with me or not, has not done the job.”

“Should I have done that?” he said. “That’s up for debate, probably for perpetuity.”

“I know that changing the chairmanship was the right thing to do,” he said. “I still believe it was the right thing to do. I think that we’ve gotten a lot more done since it’s happened and there’s a reason for that. I would perhaps do it differently the second time around, but I would do it again.”

Eggleston has an experienced resource in the family.

His father, John, was a Warren County commissioner for the 12 years prior to Jeff’s election.

“I have benefited from having my father as a mentor and someone who has provided a lot of very good advice,” Jeff Eggleston said. “Sometimes I’ve listened to it, sometimes I have not, to my detriment.”

He pointed to the signing of an agreement with a lobbyist outside of the public eye as something he did not seek advice from his father about.

“The biggest mistake that I made was the Long-Nyquist agreement and signing that based on the recommendations of a couple of people and not consulting with my father before I did that because I wouldn’t have done that,” he said. “That wasn’t a behind-closed-doors kind of a thing. It was done because we wanted to get the agreement done. Have them push for additional funding for us at the time. That was a rookie mistake. That’s something that an incumbent wouldn’t have done.”

“I think that if you talk to my father he would tell you he is very proud of the job that I’ve done and that he firmly believes that I’ve done an admirable job,” Eggleston said. “I appreciate his support.”

Eggleston believes county government can provide the boost that Warren County needs to advance.

“We’re either going to become what we want to be or we’re going to fade into obscurity,” he said. “I believe that all of the things that are really great about Warren are what can fix it. We have a long history of entrepreneurship. You look at all the major businesses in the community that are thriving or that have continued to develop over the years. They are all locally grown businesses.”

“I’m not necessarily a big believer in bringing businesses in,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in growing and establishing businesses locally.”

“We’re hard workers,” he said. “The people of Warren County have traditionally had a low unemployment rate. Most everybody is employed and works hard. They don’t ask for much. They just want to take care of themselves. We’re very thrifty and efficient. We try to do everything we can with the most limited resources possible.”

He pointed to four things that could help push the county forward — a rural broadband initiative, workforce re-training and development, keeping the Warren State Hospital property viable, and marketing and redevelopment of the county.

“Expanding broadband… that’s got to be a priority,” he said. “The future of rural business is on the internet. We need to sell products, niche products that are not sold on Amazon or Walmart. There’s also a lot of business-to-business applications that we can develop through rural broadband” and “there are also educational elements to that.”

“We’ve got to use the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College and help them be successful so they can train the people for the jobs that we have available in Warren County now and the ones that are going to come available down the line,” Eggleston said. “The only way these businesses are going to grow is to have the workers that they need to do the job, which currently, we do not.”

“We’ve got to work with the folks at the state and in human services in order to make sure that we are going to make the state hospital usable and sustainable long-term,” he said. “It’s going to require a coalition of people and real collaboration. That’s something that could easily slide into a negative state and we need to prevent that from happening.”

“Based on the list of things that we’ve accomplished… I think that there’s a clear case for re-election, a clear case for my candidacy, and I think that we’ve only scratched the surface,” Eggleston said. “I think the second term will be a lot bolder, especially with the right board and the removal of certain toxic elements.”

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