Warren County Commissioners Candidate Forum
The League of Women Voters held a commissioners candidate forum on May 7 and questions were posed to candidates by the league itself, submitted by the public, and by the audience.
The event was held in the main courtroom of the courthouse in anticipation of the upcoming May 21 primary election.
“These 90 minutes are set aside to focus on the issues that will shape our community’s future and hear from those that seek to lead us for the next four years about how they plan to address these issues,” said League President Susan Swab.
To begin the evening, each candidate answered two questions that were given to them in advance of the forum. Each candidate had 90 seconds to answer.
First question: If new resources become available to the Warren County budget, what one area do you feel most need additional resources and why?
Jeff Eggleston (Democrat): Eggleston chose human services, specifically those involving drug and alcohol/mental health and senior services. He stated that he believes Warren County cannot incarcerate themselves out of the drug and alcohol crisis and advocates for programs that will help individuals make better life choices by receiving the proper help. He further believes that, due to state and federal resources for seniors being cut, there need to be people in the commissioners’ office advocating for Warren County’s senior population; one of the highest in the state of Pennsylvania.
Paul Giannini (Democrat): Giannini focused his response on blighted properties. He believes that Warren County has a problem with blighted properties and has a need for redevelopment within the community. He proposed creating a dedicated team to tackle blighted properties, developing plans and procedures for tear down or redevelopment, and being sure that code enforcement and ordinances are in place to prevent blighted properties in the first place.
Cindy Morrison (Republican): Current county commissioner Morrison focused her answer on taxes and subsidizing local organizations. She presented working the new resources into the budget in a way that would allow a tax break for taxpayers. She also proposed subsidizing county organizations that work on a volunteer basis or with very limited funds such as volunteer fire departments and the county’s veterans.
Ben Kafferlin (Republican): Kafferlin presented dealing with systemic issues and not just trying to “trim the little pieces of fat.”
Kafferlin put the focus on fixing the drivers for the county budget with a specific emphasis on crime. He recommended social impact partnerships that would alleviate the need to keep people incarcerated, instead of putting them on probation or other programs.
Tricia Durbin (Republican): Suggested speaking with every single department within the County and receiving feedback on what their needs are and evaluating what could be fulfilled based upon new resources. She specifically cited the Summer Job Training Program for kids that allowed her to become a success story in this community and looks forward to seeing more success with that program.
Judy Albaugh (Republican): Stated she would put the new revenue towards a program that could reduce budget expenses in all portions of the County. Stating specifically that it would be an initiative to tackle the substance abuse problem in Warren County. She proposed a joint program with probation, Warren human services, and the jail.
Connie Zaffino (Democrat): Cited her 31-year social work background as she presented her use of the resources being put towards children’s mental health. She states there is a limited pool in Warren County for such services and that the area is also losing a provider for mental health and rehabilitative services. She believes this issue to be important as a child’s mental health may impact their perspective of self, their home life, their school life, and society itself.
Second question: What are the most significant barriers to workforce participation in Warren County and how would you work to address those barriers as a County Commissioner?
Giannini: Proposed developing a broadband initiative for two reasons; it would support current businesses and it would open more types of jobs in Warren County. Current businesses would have more access to online training, education, and certifications for employees. Prospective employees would have more opportunities and access to large technology firms or even customer service positions.
Morrison: Cited lack of good-paying jobs available, lack of necessary skills, the inability to pass a drug test, and Warren County’s aging and declining population as the most significant workforce barriers. She stated that she is an advocate for keeping taxes low within the County and hopes that will attract businesses and employees looking to locate to the County.
Kafferlin: Focused his proposal on his 50 in 50 endeavors last year; visiting 50 County businesses in the first 50 weeks of the year. He asked each business what the County could do to help facilitate economic growth, the main issue presented to him was the drug and alcohol problem.
Kafferlin proposed “catching the problem upstream.” When the County sees an individual constantly going in and out of prison, to partner with nonprofit rehabilitative services in order to truly get the individual revitalized and back into the community as a valuable employee. He further cited that this would save the taxpayer a large amount of money.
Durbin: Again brought up the issue of drug and alcohol abuse within the County and the inability for employees to pass drug screenings. She stated there are great services in Warren County to get those individuals to help, but the community needs to do more for that effort. She further stated that the County needs to tap into the Technical College, Northern Pennsylvania Regional College and the Career Center in an attempt to marry the needs of the employer with programs provided to potential employees at those schools.
Albaugh: Offered education, family-sustaining job opportunities, drugs and the vast options for job searching platforms as barriers to employment in Warren County. She stated that the commissioners’ support for business growth and new business development would be key. She further proposed the creation of an off-campus college branch and a technical school within Warren County.
Zaffino: Stated she believed the lack of qualified workers, the drug problems in the area and starting salaries that aren’t family sustaining were the major workforce barriers within the County. She proposed working with stakeholders within the community such as employers, drug and alcohol services and the school district, among others, as the best way to approach these issues. She further presented the idea of establishing an accredited trade school within the County.
Eggleston: Focused on the low unemployment rate and wages. He stated that due to the low unemployment rate within the County, the labor pool is small. He proposed retraining the workforce already present for other jobs available within the County. Secondly, he proposed a conversation about wages. He stated that Warren is facing a wage crisis, citing that New York State’s minimum wage will be $15 within the next few years, already causing Warren County residents to look to Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties of New York for work.
After each candidate had an opportunity to answer the two questions given to them prior to the forum, they were then asked questions randomly in a pair format.
The first candidate in each pair had 60 seconds to answer the question. The second candidate was allotted 30 seconds to either comment on the first candidate’s answer or to answer themselves.
The first question in this format was asked to candidates Durbin and Albaugh.
“Are you in favor of a countywide assessment? Why or why not?”
Durbin: Proposed working with the Commonwealth to push for an amicable solution. She further stated she doesn’t believe those on fixed assets or low income should be reassessed and have their homes and real estate taxed.
Albaugh: Presented the information that the property assessment policy is 30 years old and evaluations are unfair. She further stated that the County taking on a tax assessment would be cost prohibitive to taxpayers due to the funding and length of time it takes to complete. She proposed working with the state for a different method of assessment or for funding sources for the taxes.
Question number two was asked of Eggleston and Giannini.
“Marketing seems to be an important element of 21st-century life, describe your vision of who the players are in marketing Warren County like a business, residential, and tourist destination and describe an effective approach to ensure they work together?”
Eggleston: Stated that the County has previously been one focused on manufacturing, so tourism is not a natural thing for the community. With some of the largest amount of amenities in the northwest, he proposed working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the ANF, and other major players owning assets within the County to develop and monetize them.
Giannini: Stated that the County has large businesses that have access to marketing departments, a tourism board, and the chamber of commerce. However, he stated smaller businesses may not have the time or means to market for themselves. He proposed having a marketing director to bring these stakeholders together and create a cohesive message for Warren County to present for themselves.
The next question was directed to Eggleston and Durbin.
“How will you minimize dissension among the commissioners?”
Eggleston: The goal is to focus on issues, he said. He said that there isn’t a person in the courthouse that is going to 100% agree on everything, so you have to focus on working together in a way that will meet in the middle and find common ground.
Durbin: Added to Eggleston’s answer, stating that what comes to mind is a common goal, going hand in hand with common grounds. If you have a common goal that is met together, it is much easier to collaborate and produce a win-win situation she stated.
Next up, Albaugh and Morrison.
“What does transparency in government mean to you?”
Albaugh: Stated that transparency to her means not just marketing for what you want, but educating the public to understand what you approve and also the pros and cons of those decisions. She also believes it is valuable to hear from those who oppose your own opinions so that you can see your own goals in position to what is truly trying to be accomplished.
Morrison: Stated that transparency means there are no backroom deals or going behind the scene. She also said that before approving agreements and signing on those should not be done until they are brought to public meetings.
The final question went to Eggleston and Zaffino.
“Since it is not addressed in the County Code, would you support a locally-developed job description for county commissioners that requires a specific number of hours a commissioner must be in the courthouse?”
Eggleston: Presented the fact that there is no system through the state to monitor if elected officials show up to work, nor is there any law requiring them to show up for work. He proposed that the way to solve this issue is next time wages for the county are set, to research the legal opportunity to turn the commissioner position into an hourly position instead of a salaried one. He believes that taxpayers should be receiving what they’re paying for.
Zaffino: Responded that she would not be in favor of such a system that was proposed by Eggleston. She presented that there are several boards commissioners serve on that meet outside of courthouse hours. She stated that being a commissioner has to have a flexible schedule.
Upon completion of all questioning formats, the candidates were given 60 seconds each to return to any questions they were not specifically asked or to make a closing statement.
Morrison: Stated that as a commissioner, she would like to change the culture of the County to be more inclusive to the outer areas of the community. She proposed holding County meetings out in the towns and boroughs once every month.
Kafferlin: Proposed the difference between doing business the old way or the new way, in favor of the new way. He stated the old way was the commissioners creating government initiatives and raising taxes, spending tax dollars on these initiatives. The new way of being spending time and effort on drawing down state and federal partners and engaging the community more in dealing with systemic problems acting as cost drivers to the County.
Durbin: Returned to the idea of the County budget. She stated that she would like to partner with those providing services to the County and making sure that it is a collaborative environment in order to get things done and work together.
Albaugh: Stated that she would put importance on knowing where the money goes in the County budget and overseeing the budget. She stated she believes the court has not watched the budget close enough in the past as it moves throughout the year and needs may have changed.
Zaffino: Revisited the idea of transparency in government. She stated that transparency means we have an open government in which everyone is included and that decisions are not made by one or two people, but rather the entire board. She continued with making sure there are no barriers when it comes to a citizen requesting information about the County or knowing what is happening in the County.
Eggleston: Touched on transparency, but rather cited what he has done to push transparency already within the County. He stated he bought a camera in order to record Commissioners meetings to post on the County website. He pushed for the commissioners’ weekly work sessions to share information and he added a Right to Know form on the County website to make it more convenient for citizens to request information.
Giannini: Talked about the subject of potholes and road conditions within the County. He stated that the front line people treating and handling these issues are the townships and the boroughs. He hopes as a commissioner he will be able to provide these organizations the resources they need in order to fix the road condition issues within the county.