Incumbent Kafferlin wants to finish what was started
¯ Why are you running for re-election?
¯ What do you view as your major accomplishments of the term?
¯ 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, have produced, to some degree, a toxic environment at the courthouse?
¯ Tradition calls for the leading vote-getter to be the chairman. You and Commissioner Jeff Eggleston took that designation from Commissioner Cindy Morrison. What was the motivation for doing so? How has the chairmanship empowered you, if at all, to advance initiatives for the county? At the root of our question is this – did the change really matter?
¯ Right before the 2015 election, you said that a Chinese company was interested in relocating to Warren County – and bringing high-tech jobs, citing that “the likelihood of the deal finally going through is probably 90 percent.” What happened to it?
¯ In your “Why we’re running together” article on Facebook, you wrote that “Providence put me” in this office, you talk about a “calling” to serve constituents and make the claim that the office “matches my God-given abilities well.” There are undoubtedly people in the county that will struggle with this type of language. It can come across as smug and entitled, even somewhat arrogant. Why is it important for you to speak in this way?
¯ What do you see in the future for Warren County? What do you hope to accomplish if elected to a second term?
Commissioner Ben Kafferlin is seeking re-election to a second term.
And a project-heavy first term is at the heart of why he’s running again.
“Mainly because I’ve started a bunch of projects I want to see to completion,” Kafferlin, a Republican, said when asked why he’s seeking a second term. “So I want to see Innovault completely flourishing. I want to see the Motorola radio project to completion and there are some things that I initially ran on that I have not been able to push through and that’s largely due to the makeup of the board.”
He said those items are largely “internal, HR controls, fiscal controls and that sort of thing.”
“If I left right now, I would feel like I’d leave it hanging and I don’t know what would happen.”
And he didn’t hesitate to identify a project that he views as most important.
“I think the Motorola partnership is probably the most significantly impactful to every citizen of Warren County,” he said, “and the reason is that I think if it were not for me it would not have happened. It really took somebody in the Commissioner’s office who is an emergency responder in order to understand the dire situation that we were in.”
Kafferlin said the status of the county’s emergency radio system is “something that the Department of Public Safety had been bringing up for years and it was kind of… I don’t think they recognized in previous boards (that) the system is going to fail soon and it was costing them more to not replace it.”
“The fact that the Motorola partnership with the state fell in our laps more or less was just hugely beneficial. It was hugely beneficial to the county because we saved an enormous amount of money. We would have had to replace the system pretty soon anyway.”
He acknowledged he “can’t take too much credit” for the state’s involvement as he was “floored by their generous offer to just let us on their new system. I was negotiating for something old that PSP (Pennsylvania State Police) was downgrading because it would at least be a step up from what we had and it would be affordable. I’m extremely pleased with that. I think that’s the one main project.”
Even with these successes, the first term of the current board hasn’t been without controversy and discord.
Kafferlin agreed that describing the courthouse atmosphere as toxic is a “fair word” but said that “I think if you talked to people at the courthouse with maybe only a few exceptions, they would not lay the blame on me.”
“Since I took over the chairmanship, and the main reason I took over the chairmanship was… to stop the public discord. When I go door to door, people have asked me ‘Why the discord? Why the mean environment?’ The fact is, most of our discussions and the reasons that I fight back at times are due to justice. You have somebody that is an elected official leaking HR information, calling out employees in public meetings, intentionally sabotaging employees and other elected officials. That’s just not acceptable. So the reason that I will fight is because there is an injustice being done and I feel a responsibility as someone who took an oath to stop that when I can.”
He claimed that “things have been much better since I took over as chair” and said the meeting minutes would prove that assertion. “There have been less fights and when they do happen they’re shorter, at least.”
“Some people, when I have knocked on the door, people say ‘Well, it takes two to tango’ and I agree, it does take two to tango but tangoing is an art form and it takes partnership in leading and following and a back and forth that we don’t have.”
“So, it takes two to tango but it only takes one to light a dumpster fire.”
The issue of the chairmanship was a hot-button topic during this term. Tradition in the county has called for the chair to fall to the leading vote-getter – which was Commissioner Cindy Morrison. It is without dispute that Kafferlin and Commissioner Jeff Eggleston took that from her.
He offered additional defenses to that decision.
“I want it on that record that it is not in the county code that the top vote-getter gets the chairmanship,” he said, “and that’s not necessarily something I would advocate for if re-elected or that any board would do it.”
“I think the person that’s best capable of running meetings, setting agendas and being prepared to lead in certain situations such as emergency management… should be the chair.”
He said other counties rotate the chairmanship or divide it amongst the two commissioners of the majority party.
“I think it’s a uniquely Warren County tradition that is not helpful.”
He argued he’s also been “accused of taking it in order to be the top dog, to be in charge or whatever and advance my political career.”
“To be clear, it’s done absolutely the opposite and I knew that it would be damaging to my reputation from the moment that I voted… even contemplating it, I knew that it would not be popular because this is not the first time this has happened in Warren County and it’s never been popular.”
All the discussion about the chairmanship begged one essential question: In terms of the county’s business, does the designation really matter?
“I would say that there’s probably very few votes that did or didn’t happen because of the chairmanship,” he said. “What changed was more of the ethos of the county government because the chairman is usually the one that’s called into meetings, especially when setting internal policies.”
He said personnel issues and items like fiscal management procedures will “go to the chairperson, at least, usually first. As a consequence, I’ve been able to push through a lot of internal changes that the public generally wouldn’t see and help advise and guide and that’s a normal thing.”
He noted many counties pay the chairperson at a higher rate.
“I’m not advocating for that to be clear,” he said. “I think that everyone should show up equally and do their job.”
When it comes to the workday of the commissioners, Kafferlin responded to criticism he’s received for voting against a pay freeze for the commissioners.
He said he was “hoping that instead we could first of all raise the elected officials’ (salaries) along the lines of a cost of living adjustment rather than a standard one percent, or two percent or three percent and second of all I would actually like the commissioner’s office, just like the Auditor’s office, to be per diem. You show up to work, you get paid by turning in a timesheet.”
While part of running for re-election is talking about what you’ve done, another aspect is dealing with things you pitched and didn’t bring to completion.
One policy issue Kafferlin highlighted in advance of the last general election was a Chinese company interested in relocating to the county. At the time, he said, “the likelihood of the deal finally going through is probably 90 percent.”
“There was a property in Starbrick that we were looking to acquire that ended up going to another local business,” he said, “and that was the only property that the Chinese company was initially interested in. And I think that it just made them skittish that I wasn’t able to get that property.”
“I wasn’t able to easily turn around and point to another facility that would work just as well,” he added. “The companies that I was working with were high-tech manufacturers and needed clean room environments and as far as I know there aren’t any on the market in Warren County. Short of going to Osram Sylvania and coordinating a big massive effort to get that place remediated and add clean room inside of it, there really wasn’t anything that I could do. And it looked really bad once I was elected to be trying to draw down state and federal money in order to rehabilitate a property in Warren County.”
He said the firm initially looked at another site in the state “but then the tariffs came in and the trade war happened and ultimately the trade war is what completely shut down… We actually were, we were selling product here in Warren County for probably a year, maybe 18 months, but once the trade war (began) there was no hope. I blame the long term failure… on the tariffs.”
Looking ahead to a possible second term, Kafferlin hasn’t shied away from speaking about how his faith shapes his politics.
“Fundamentally, it goes back to my faith,” he said when asked about some of the religious language he has used in campaign statements. “I believe that there is a God that is in control of everything and is sovereign over everything. That includes government. That includes elections and I think it’s important to acknowledge that this election is not about me. It is entirely about serving the people and ultimately loving one’s neighbor and doing justice and loving mercy.”
He added that he as “gotten flack for saying I mean to leave a legacy.”
“When it comes to this legacy thing, I didn’t mean that – I did say it, and I did mean it – I certainly did not intend to suggest that I’m trying to leave a legacy to puff up my own chest. I mean that I’m trying to make impactful, real change to help real people in Warren County. So I mean to leave a legacy in the sense that the county government will be improved. It will be reformed. It will be better than it was, not for my sake but for the consumer’s sake.”
He said his focus in a second term will be to continue with the projects he already outlined. But he did suggest several new projects and areas that would be a focus should he be re-elected.
“I want to see a microloan program up and going for small, very small start-up businesses that can’t attract larger capital or enough money from the family fools and friends,” he said. “I want to see the co-working space thriving and expanding beyond just the City of Warren but to include micro-sites” throughout the county.
He said he also will be working as a part of a county consortium advocating “the forensic state hospital component” which he described as “absolutely critical to truly helping inmates that are in county jails not getting services currently. That’s something Commissioner Eggleston has been pushing for but I’m also lending a shoulder to it because I think that it really is one of the most critical needs in the community.”
“I want to see the expansion of faith-based involvement in county government,” he continued, “whether it’s with Love INC or other organizations. I would like to see the programs like the RELATE project expanded beyond just the jail, just beyond work release to potentially other people in the jail, definitely people on probation, people that are accepting intellectual disabilities help.”
“I think that model of having local non-profits, non-governmental organizations, actually involved in people’s lives is what will really turn this county around. Right now we’ve got people that are too dependent on the system that is fundamentally good at punitive justice but nothing else. We are not a restorative justice government nor can we be. That’s just not the role of government really. Only non-government organizations, that is a community… it’s when they step in and actually build a relationship that true change happens.”
He also spoke about “harnessing natural resources.”
“Tourism is not our savior,” he said. “It’s not going to solve the population, the decline is not going to turn around because of that. However, it can help.”
To those ends, he proposed expanded mountain bike and ATV trail systems
Natural resources also include oil and gas and he said he’d “like to support oil and gas in our community, particularly conventional… We have a good industry base with conventional oil and gas and I’d like to see that supported.”
“Obviously, we need to encourage ANF (Allegheny National Forest) and others to increase board production on timber,” he added.
He also made a pitch for a new look at job training programs.
“I would love to continue a conversation I’ve had with Congressman (Glenn) Thompson and Senator (Pat) Toomey about giving Warren County a block grant for workforce development,” he said. “That way we would be able to take the money directly to the county rather than it getting divvied up between Erie and all these other counties in the region and actually do something that’s meaningful to our employers here.”
“One of the great problems that I have with the existing system is that they have identified these job needs that is ranked by the entire region and so we know that some things like nursing and trucking/transportation are critical for the entire area and I am fully supportive, obviously, of training people that want to go into that but what I think we’re missing is the more niche markets that will actually be created if we were to train people in things like high-tech internet of things technology manufacturing.”
“So rather than be reactive to what the market needs, I would like to get in front of that and start training now the people that are going to be needed for 10 to 20 years.”