Local leaders had the opportunity to pose questions to several state secretaries Monday morning, including those from the departments of aging, transportation, labor and industry, community and economic development and drug and alcohol programs.
The "Cabinet In Your Community" session saw state officials address questions about the city of Johnstown's Act 47 status, the region's drug epidemic and priority road projects during a Q&A-style format held in the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
Johnstown's acting city manager, Curt Davis, asked Dennis Davin, secretary of the state's Department for Community and Economic Development, about future plans for cities such as Johnstown, which has been been under Act 47 distressed status since 1992.
Davin said his role has shown him the emotional toll Act 47 takes on cities, especially those that leave and must find their own way financially.
"It's a really tough thing to do, but the tougher thing to do is stay in Act 47," Davin said.
Programs are evolving and improving to solidify infrastructure and prevent local officials from raising taxes in Act 47 communities, Davin said, and he's optimistic about the future for cities such as Johnstown.
"We put a higher priority for Act 47 communities," he said. "We think we're seeing light at the end of the tunnel."
Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic asked Davin about the city's budget, approximately one-third of which is consumed by pension costs.
Davin said pension reform is a tough issue that should ultimately be addressed by state legislators, although many cities he works with have leased or sold assets to boost income.
Opioids and overdoses
Cambria County's President Commissioner Tom Chernisky asked Jennifer Smith, secretary of the state's Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, what the statewide impact has been from the use of naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug.
Increased use of the antidote – often called Narcan – by first responders is meaning fewer fatal overdoses across the commonwealth, Smith said.
But, she said, her department is using grant funds to increase awareness about addiction as the stigma surrounding the use of Narcan to revive overdose patients increases.
"Narcan is just one step in a very long process to get people the help they need," she said. "They can only get that help if they're alive."
Bridge concerns, Route 219
Jesper Nielsen, co-owner and CEO of Croyle-Nielsen Therapeutic Associates in Johnstown, asked PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards about the number of suicides reported at the McNally Bridge, which carries Route 219 across the Stonycreek River at the Cambria-Somerset counties border.
Last year, a local petition with more than 5,000 signatures suggested solutions such as fencing or netting, signage with suicide hotline numbers, or local artists' work to convey hope.
Although she's open to conversation about solving this type of problem, Richards said PennDOT "could put up fencing on every single one of our bridges," but people determined to harm themselves or others would likely carry out their intentions.
"There's only so much we can do to have an impact, but we need to figure out what that is," she said.
Richards also said there's only so much PennDOT can do when it comes to funding the remaining five miles of U.S. Route 219 from Meyersdale across the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.
Some have estimated it would cost $250 million to connect the roadway with Interstate 68 in Garrett County, Maryland.
Maryland officials are already moving forward with $90 million worth of design work, right-of-way acquisition and construction to realign U.S. Route 219 in Maryland between I-68 and the Mason-Dixon Line.
An 11-mile four-lane stretch from Somerset to Meyersdale is slated to open later this year, but PennDOT officials are reaching out to federal transportation officials for additional help as well as U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, who is in his last year in office. Shuster chairs the House transportation committee.
"That is a project that will not get done without federal funding," she said.
"We're well aware of it."