Six Republican candidates vying for Cambria County Commissioner in this month’s primary election may come from diverse backgrounds and different areas of the county, but the issues that concern them and the residents they’re speaking to on the campaign trail are similar.
Jerry Carnicella of Patton, Karen Esaias of Westmont, Ray Guzic of Lilly, Scott Hunt of Upper Yoder Township, Paul Seitz of Geistown and Howard Terndrup of Ebensburg will be Cambria County Republicans’ choices on the May 21 ballot.
Two of those candidates will move on to the fall election and face off against incumbent Democrats Tom Chernisky and William “B.J.” Smith, who are running unopposed in the primary.
Cambria County is represented by three commissioners. The current board has a Democratic majority, with outgoing Republican Commissioner Mark Wissinger opting not to run for re-election.
Chernisky, Smith and Wissinger took office in 2016.
• Retired business owner, musician and PIAA referee Carnicella said the fear of higher property taxes is the biggest concern of the residents he’s spoken to as he campaigns.
“They don’t want to be taxed one dime more to fund the decades long demise of this county as they see it,” he said. “In fact, they want me to fight to lower their taxes and my plans, if implemented, will do just that.”
Carnicella said Cambria County voters are also concerned about job creation, economic opportunities and the ongoing opioid crisis. He said people are outraged that overdose-reversing antidotes are administered repeatedly instead of ordering rehabilitation and that many have become addicted to methadone to treat their opioid addiction.
“The people hold the drug companies and politicians at every level responsible for addicting our people for life on these drugs,” he said. “People are outraged that we are giving free drugs to people suffering from addiction and they can’t get medicine for real ailments and diseases like diabetes, allergies, cancer and more.”
Carnicella said voters also seem to be disgusted by political games within county government and feel it’s a main reason counties surrounding Cambria County are doing well “while we continue to suffer because politicians in both parties really have put their own self interests and those of their cronies far ahead of the people of this county.”
All of these issues are those Carnicella said he will work on “day in and day out” if elected.
“Our beautiful peoples’ hearts have become so hardened over every negative thing that has happened here over the decades and they are no so protective of what’s left,” he said. “They want health, home and family to be secured. I will try to assure them of that, but I will also be working to help those less fortunate and to provide enhancements to all of our lives with recreational opportunities and new financial opportunities that will keep children and grandchildren from having to leave us.”
• Esaias, an Air Force veteran, said meeting with voters and discussing their concerns has been an eye-opening experience.
“As I knock on doors and meet the voters at events, I have heard them express concern over the decline in population, particularly the departure of our young folks,” she said. “We have wonderful schools and training facilities, but our young people often get that quality education and move away. They would like our county government to be more business-friendly in hopes of attracting new business and expanding existing businesses thus giving our children more opportunities to remain in this area.”
Many officials have predicted Cambria County will move from 4th to 5th class status based on its declining population, which could result in a significant reduction in funding from the state and federal government, Esaias said.
“In anticipation of that change, the commissioners must be proactive and have a viable plan in place to ensure services continue without disruption or additional cost to taxpayers,” she said.
• Esaias also mentioned the region’s opioid crisis and its wide-reaching effects as another voter concern. As a law enforcement professional in the Air Force, Esaias said she investigated drug dealers and watched them go to jail. On the other side, Esaias said she’s seen addicts in Cambria County’s Veterans Court who need compassion and treatment.
“Cambria County Commissioners in conjunction with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office need to send a clear message to drug dealer that they will be apprehended and will go to prison,” she said. “At the same time, we need to help those victims who are looking for help.”
Proven leadership is something Esaias said she feels makes her a good candidate.
“As the only woman and only veteran in the race, I will bring a unique perspective to the board of commissioners,” she said.” I love this place and I want to work with other like-minded individuals, businesses and groups to make our area vibrant, solvent and looking to a bright future.”
• Washington Township supervisor Guzic cited similar issues concerning voters he’s spoken to– taxes, blight and opioid abuse.
“I hope to be able to hold the line on taxes due to my experience in budgeting while sitting on multiple boards and authorities,” he said. “During the 17 years I have served as a supervisor in Washington Township, there has not been a tax increase.”
For the past 10 years, Guzic has also been on the Cambria County Redevelopment Authority, which oversees a demolition fund created from a fee on deeds filed within the county authorized through Pennsylvania’s Act 152. Those funds have been used to demolish several blighted properties throughout the county over the past two years.
“I feel this has been a very worthwhile project and would like to continue moving forward with the progress,” he said.
“Another issue I feel we need to deal with is the lack of jobs and economic development in the county. We are seeing more and more of the younger generation leaving due to this problem. Our college graduates are leaving to find jobs in order to support themselves and pay back the education debt. They are also moving to areas which offer more recreational opportunities.”
In regards to the county’s struggle with opioid abuse, Guzic said he understands the community’s concerns because he has seen addiction affect a family member.
“I know the detrimental effect this can have on families and community and also feel this is of great importance to deal with,” he said.
Overall, Guzic said the experience and knowledge he has gained as a township supervisor and involvement on county boards and authorities makes him a worthy candidate to move on to the fall election.
• Hunt said declining population and the need for family-sustaining jobs are issues voters have discussed with him, along with the current board of commissioners’ decisions to raise taxes by 5 mills in 2016 and enact a $5 fee on vehicle registrations.
Although the commissioners passed budgets in 2017 and 2018 that included half-mill property tax decreases, Hunt said his record includes 11 consecutive years of holding the line on taxes. In 2014, Hunt said the township lowered residents’ real estate taxes by 1 mill.
“Combined with a $20 decrease for the garbage and recycling fee per residence, since 2012 we have been able to save residents over $600,000 in taxes and fees,” he said. “I will be able to take my local government background as well as my ability to think outside the box to use as a county commissioner.”
If correct, the prediction about Cambria County’s classification changing after the 2020 U.S. Census could mean the consolidation of row offices and the level of funding from state and federal agencies, Hunt said.
“This is where the ability to think creatively and think out of the box is going to be an important skill and huge asset,” Hunt said.
The county budget will also be a big issue for the next set of commissioners, Hunt said, with less revenue to work with if Cambria County is reclassified.
“We can’t just simply say, ‘well, we need more money, time to raise taxes,’” he said. “It doesn’t work and that is not going to help with the declining population of the county.”
To attract and retain residents, Hunt said job development is important, but so is quality of life.
“Areas that have a higher quality of life have better economies,” he said. “One piece of the puzzle to achieve this is through outdoor recreation. Outdoor recreation and tourism are things we have started to focus on recently. We need to continue the efforts.”
• Former Geistown mayor and council member Seitz also mentioned similar concerns he’s spoken with voters about: limited job opportunities resulting in the loss of younger generations and declining population; high property taxes; and the opioid epidemic.
“Our county has a talented workforce, abundant natural resources and a lower cost of living that is very attractive, but each of the issues of concern impact the viability of our region,” he said. “We need to be hard on the drug dealers and the abuse of the opioid/drug epidemic, but also have to ensure a pathway for those recovering to become valued and contributing members of our community.”
Seitz pledged to be a full-time commissioner if elected, “focused on solving our challenges, taking advantage of our opportunities, while always putting taxpayers first.”
“As a lifelong resident with 30 years of proven business skills managing budgets, controlling costs and creating strategic plans to help others succeed, I have the right experience to tackle the tough issues our county faces,” he said. “In addition, as a mayor and councilman in Geistown Borough, I balanced budgets, protected taxpayers and worked across party lines to seek best practices from others to deliver real results to our residents. As commissioner, I will always understand that it is your money, not mine, and I will be judicial with the taxpayers’ money. We need government to make sacrifices so local seniors and families aren’t burdened with tax increases from undisciplined spending.”
Every issue facing the county directly impacts the ability to maintain and attract employers and families to the region, Seitz said.
Tax increases affect the cost of living, which could discourage businesses and families from moving here and staying here, he said, while the opioid crisis could deter people from moving to an area where associated violent crimes are on the rise.
“By taking decisive and direct action, we can turn the far too often negative news stories into countless positive successes,” Seitz said. “Many communities are facing these challenges, but our county has proven time and again how resilient we can be. As county commissioner, I pledge to provide the strong conservative leadership the job requires to ensure our county continues to remain a great place to live, work and raise a family.”
• Terndrup, a business owner for more than 30 years and a board member for REA Energy, said aside from taxes, jobs and the drug crisis, voters are also concerned with declining home values, high utility bills and rural broadband.
“As commissioner I will reduce spending and reduce taxes,” he said. “I would much rather the taxpayers have their money in their pocket.”
Terndrup said he hasn’t accepted contributions, doesn’t have a campaign staff and doesn’t use a political consultant.
“I wanted to run on my own,” he said. “I work smart. I work hard. I like problem-solving and I am creative and innovative. Cambria County voted to put a businessman in the White House and I hope they want a businessman in the courthouse.”
Terndrup said the county has plenty of revenue, but leaders should focus on reducing spending. Blair and Fayette counties, both of which have similar populations, spend significantly less, he said.
In regards to jobs, Terndrup said he spoke with numerous business owners and nearly all of them had help wanted signs posted.
“Some have given up looking,” he said. “The solution is right within our schools. My goal is that every student graduating from high school that is not going to college is job-ready. There is a demand for all the trades: plumbers, electricians, machinists, welders, mechanics, carpenters, masons, etc.”
Rural broadband is a top priority for future economic development, Terndrup added, according to the Southern Alleghenies Planning Commission.
“There are a number of homes that don’t have access to good broadband and that is a problem for Cambria County as a whole,” he said. “I am currently working on rural broadband as a director of REA Energy, and there will need to be collaboration between county, state and federal government to get this done.”
During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., as part of a rural electric delegation, Terndrup said he met with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, U.S. Rep. John Joyce and U.S. Rep Guy Reschenthaler about nuclear power and rural broadband.
Last week, Terndrup said he attended a meeting in Harrisburg with Gov. Tom Wolf and area state representatives about the same issues.
“There are a large number of voters in the rural electric cooperatives and they are receptive to our needs,” he said. “We feel it is essential to keep nuclear power to keep electricity rates low. REA Energy is part of bringing broadband to rural areas. Being an effective commissioner means working with all levels of government to bring new ideas and opportunities back to Cambria County.”