As I knock on doors in Westmoreland County, I get asked questions that I think many of you would find interesting. Below are the answers to questions that I hear.
Did Westmoreland County Commissioners return any CARES or ARPA funding?
NO! I spent nearly 30 years at Pitt, managing grants for the last 15 years. I’m very familiar with federal and state grant terms and conditions. I work long days and request lots of data on my own. We returned $0 in CARES or ARPA dollars.
Did Westmoreland County Commissioners fund small businesses and non-profits with CARES or ARPA money?
YES! In 2020, the Board voted to authorize several tranches of funding to small businesses, non-profits, first responders, and municipalities. We ran 2 rounds of funding for small businesses and non-profits. Each round had a maximum award of $25,000 per group. By the time the programs finished, most every business and non-profit had been made whole. By setting an award maximum, we allowed each business or non-profit to get something in round 1, which was enough for many of them. In round 2, most businesses and non-profits remaining were made whole. We did a 3rd round with specific funding for restaurants (CHIRP), which made most restaurants whole by the end of the 3rd round. We announced a $5 million cap on round 1 for each group (business and non-profits) but didn’t get enough applicants to award it all. In round 2, we didn’t announce a cap. Despite being willing to award $20 million in CARES money, we awarded just under $13 million, $7 million less than anticipated.
Did Westmoreland County Commissioners return Emergency Rental Assistance dollars?
YES, like most counties in PA! Emergency Rental Assistance Program dollars or ERAP were codified into 2 programs: ERAP1 and ERAP2. ERAP1 was established in PA by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and signed into law by Governor Wolf on February 5, 2021. ERAP2 began with the passage of the American Rescue Plan of 2021 and implemented in PA with PA Act 24, which Governor Wolf signed on June 30, 2021. Both programs fund very specific costs, for limited months.
ERAP funding is provided by renters for: rent, rental arrears, utilities and home energy costs, utility and home energy costs arrears, and some other expenses related to housing. There are some nuances, like ERAP2 can be used for arrearages and future payments. Time to use the funds are different; for example, ERAP1 sun-downed September 2022. No person can receive more than 18 months, including assistance from ERAP1 and ERAP2.
The big difference between the two programs was in how someone ended up in arrears. For ERAP1, a tenant had to demonstrate the problem for arrears was directly or indirectly due to the pandemic. For ERAP2, the problem had to be due to the pandemic (directly or indirectly) or during the pandemic. Adding that the problem could have occurred during the pandemic – not necessarily due to the pandemic – made a big difference.
What is the law related to comprehensive plans for counties in Pennsylvania?
The Municipalities Planning Code Act is a PA Act of the General Assembly that specifies what municipalities must do for comprehensive planning on a regular basis and spells out the results of not doing this activity. The only municipal government type required to prepare a comprehensive plan is county governments. Local governments (i.e., boroughs, townships, towns, and cities) and school districts are not mandated. Counties are mandated to prepare one every 10 years. Although local governments can avoid them altogether, there are some penalties for not doing them: state agencies (e.g., DCED) won't usually fund activities or projects that aren't aligned to a planning document. There are other things that local governments can't do in the absence of a comprehensive plan, like charge a traffic impact fee.
As required by statute, Westmoreland County did a comprehensive plan in the previous Board of Commissioners. The Democrat majority spent $250,000 to $300,000 on a plan and filed it. That plan is good for 10 years. Currently, many parts of the County’s comprehensive plan are pie-in-the-sky. There’s no money to fund them, and Chairman Kertes and I have different priorities for using County tax dollars than the previous Board. Will Chairman Kertes and I “re-engineer neighborhoods?” That isn’t discussed in the comprehensive plan that I read, but no, we aren’t changing neighborhoods, and we will not “revisit” the comprehensive plan. Why would we spend another $300,000 – or more! – to redo a plan that we don’t have to follow? If Chairman Kertes and I are re-elected, we plan to continue our current trajectory of enhancing parks and rural spaces and focusing on business, manufacturing, and workforce development. Neighborhood re-engineering, whatever that might be, is not on our agenda.
It Takes Two, Baby (Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston)
Beware of candidate’s who promise outlandish things. No commissioner can do anything without a second vote. If a certain external board member’s term is expired, but the board member is not renewed or replaced, then that means that the Commissioners can’t come to an agreement on what to do. There’s nothing fishy about it. Can one commissioner downsize from 3 commissioners to a county executive? NO WAY! A home rule charter would need to be written. It would need to get on a ballot by a vote from 2 commissioners. It would need to be approved by voters. Westmoreland County polling indicates no desire to move to home rule charters for county government. In my experience at CCAP, home rule counties spend more than double on the executive and board compared to Westmoreland County’s 3 commissioners. My recommendation would be to continue to follow Act 40, the PA County Code.