State of the County

Cambria County President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky addresses the members of the Cambria Regional Chamber of Commerce about the state of the county on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, at the Holiday Inn-Downtown Johnstown.

Teamwork was a key component for progress in 2017 and will continue to be the focus of Cambria County government, the county commissioners said during their annual State of the County breakfast at the Holiday Inn in downtown Johnstown on Tuesday morning.

Joel Valentine, CEO of Wessel & Co., said his work with the county on its annual audit shows the work being done to solidify the county’s financial state and said it’s “refreshing to see them working together.”

“They’ve made the tough decisions at the right times,” he said. 

President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky said upon being sworn in for his second term in office in 2016, he and his fellow commissioners faced a deficit of $8.6 million. 

That debt now stands at $2.27 million, and one of the main objectives for 2018 is to eliminate that deficit completely.

“That doesn’t happen overnight,” Chernisky said. 

“We don’t have all the answers, but when we work as a team and run ideas past each other, that’s how we get things done.” 

The commissioners, who raised property taxes by 5 mills in 2016, voted to decrease property taxes by a half-mill in the county’s 2017 budget and will vote Thursday on a 2018 budget that calls for another half-mill decrease in taxes. 

Working with department heads and

row officers to make cuts where they’re available and requesting bids for contracts of all sizes are two ways Chernisky said the commissioners are looking to save tax dollars. 

“We don’t want to be the first county in the state of Pennsylvania to go bankrupt,” he said. 

 “We’re shopping – and at the end of the day, it’s a savings to the taxpayer.” 

Also this year, the county received an upgraded bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, whose analysts revised the county’s debt outlook from negative to stable based on “improved budgetary performance.” 

Bond ratings like those from S&P affect the county’s interest rates and ability to borrow.

In 2016, the county’s debt outlook and bond rating was downgraded to negative status, which S&P analysts mainly attributed to the county’s general fund reserve deficit of

$8.6 million at the time.

At the commissioners’ November meeting, they voted unanimously to borrow

$3 million for capital improvement projects at various county-owned facilities, which Chernisky said at the time was done in conjunction with refinancing existing debt to level out the county’s debt service payments. 

That short-term loan, issued through First National Bank, will carry an interest rate of 1.79 percent. County officials’ goal is to pay it off within

13 months.

The loan will not affect the 2018 budget, but will cover costs the county could not absorb immediately — hot water heaters and roof repairs at the Cambria County Prison, HVAC units and a new roof at the county’s human services building on Candlelight Drive in Ebensburg, new vehicles for the county sheriff’s department and software upgrades for other departments. 

Although the county continues to face adversity with decreasing population, a constantly changing economy and a nationwide drug epidemic, “I think we’re on the right track,” said Commissioner Mark Wissinger. 

Commissioner William “B.J.” Smith discussed the progress the current administration made in addressing 26 county-owned bridges, 11 of which were considered structurally deficient when he took office in 2016. 

Act 89, passed by the Gov. Tom Corbett administration in 2013, allowed counties to add $5 to vehicle registration fees and be used to repair and replace locally owned bridges. 

Cambria County’s use of Act 89 allowed the commissioners to hold ribbon-cuttings at two bridge replacements and three bridge repairs in 2017. 

By 2020, Smith said the county’s bridges and several others owned by local municipalities will be repaired or replaced, saving $8.2 million of county tax dollars. 

“I’m very proud of that,” he said.

As 2018 approaches, Chernisky said the commissioners will continue to look for savings, opportunities to promote the region, ways educate and hear from the public and solutions to the ongoing challenges within the area. 

“That’s how we’re working to move things forward,” he said.

 

​Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.

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