Change is coming to Schuylkill County in less than four weeks. Republican Frank J. Staudenmeier, Ashland, is the only sitting county commissioner seeking re-election. Democratic incumbents Mantura Gallagher and Francis V. McAndrew chose to retire from office.
George Halcovage, Pottsville, president of Morgan & Halcovage Insurance Agency, joins Staudenmeier on the Republican ticket for the Nov. 8 general election.
On the Democratic ticket are Gary J. Hess, mayor of Schuylkill Haven and owner of a catering business, and John Plachko Jr., a Pottsville contractor. All four candidates have strong county roots.
On Wednesday night, the men took part in a debate sponsored by the Tamaqua Area Chamber of Commerce and held in the Tamaqua Community Center. The candidates offered thoughts about the current condition of the county and its future. The session drew close to 40 attendees.
Barry Gangaware of the Tamaqua Chamber posed a wide variety of selected questions which had been submitted by the general public. The candidates had no prior knowledge of the subject matter.
Chamber President Todd Miller served as master of ceremonies and timekeeper, monitoring a stopwatch for every response to ensure that each candidate was given an equal opportunity and that the session moved forward in orderly fashion.
More alike than different
In many different ways, the candidates agreed that a bipartisan spirit of cooperation is important for progress.
Halcovage emphasized a need for county unity.
"We cannot look at north, south, east and west. It is all one," he said, adding that he has ties to a few local schools, including Marian High School and St. Jerome's Regional School.
Plachko said he has high hopes for what can be accomplished.
"I came back to the county because I wanted to raise my family here," said Plachko, adding that recruiting new business is a priority. "Pennsylvania is not a friendly place right now."
For Hess, serving as commissioner would provide "a chance to give back."
Staudenmeier, a former PPL area manager, said he hopes to continue a record of success, pointing out that the county hasn't increased taxes in seven consecutive years.
It was noted that the county is comprised of 67 municipalities. Some of those feel a distinct level of 'disconnect' with county government or the county itself, such as Tamaqua, situated just seven miles from three other counties Carbon, Luzerne and Lehigh. That fact was brought up in one particular question.
"Tamaqua is removed from mainstream operations of Schuylkill County. How would you ensure that Tamaqua residents have access to services that the county should provide to all county residents," asked Gangaware, reading from a submitted form. The responses varied.
"I look at what we have done with TIDE and SEDCO," said Halcovage. We have seen more cooperation now than we ever have before. Frank (Staudenmeier) and I are interested in what goes on in the eastern end of the county."
Hess said he would try to "involve and get people together" using roving commissioners' meeting and town hall meetings.
"We want to get more in touch with the people we serve," Hess said.
Staudenmeier elaborated on the size of the county.
"It took me one hour and twenty minutes to drive from Tower City to Tamaqua," he noted, saying that he feels "special ties" to the community going back to the days when he served as chairman of SEDCO and the Schuylkill United Way campaign, which has a separate Tamaqua component.
Plachko said improved communications would be one answer and that he would support roving meetings by the board, including some evening sessions for the benefit of local folks who work during the day.
In response to another query, all four said they would consider the commissioner job to be full-time. Staudenmeier said he's been doing it all along. The others said they have provisions in place to operate their business in a way that wouldn't compromise the time commitment required to be a commissioner.
In response to a question about the fiscal health of the county, Staudenmeier said there is a financial surplus. However, Plachko said the county "is digging into its rainy day fund." Halcovage said fiscal health can be a matter of challenging the "excellent" courthouse staff, and perhaps combining jobs if needed. Hess said the county "needs to be run like a business," including having the right people in the right places.
Hardships of taxation cited
Other topics included crime, the county prison, blight, taxes and economic development. All four said they would favor some type of property tax reform, citing hardships being placed on homeowners, the elderly and even young couples. The practice of spot reassessments done by school district taxing bodies was a particularly sore subject, with candidates calling the practice "a tragedy," "unfair" and "unfortunate," although acknowledging that districts are subject to state funding cuts and still expected to meet requirements
In an ironic twist, the tax discussion took place on the same day that the Tamaqua Area School District revealed its intent to impose a new 1-percent tax on residents' earned income and net profits. The legal notice pertaining to the newly proposed TASD tax appeared in Wednesday's TIMES NEWS.
The final question of the 90-minute session was: "What is your vision for the future of Schuylkill County?"
Halcovage said: "That we all be one. I believe we can be the diamond. My vision is a place where we have people coming back here to live and to prosper. We've got to believe in ourselves."
Plachko said: "To go back to the days when people from Philly used to hop on the train and come to Pottsville instead of the other way around. To work hard and make the county a great place."
Staudenmeier said: "I have a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old who live down the street from me – my grandchildren. To give them a reason to stay."
Hess said: "My dream for the future is for our grandchildren ... to see that we're flourishing, to see our downtowns flourish. You've got to believe that we can prosper and move forward."
The debate provided local residents a unique chance to greet the candidates and become familiar with the slate, and to express concerns and ask questions.
"It's the first one held in the area. I came out to support the candidates," said voter Gar Thomas of Lake Hauto.
Due to the nature of the debate, there was no formal recognition of notables in attendance. However, among those on hand were Sen. David G. Argall, R-29; Rep. Jerry P. Knowles, R-124; county controller Melinda Kantner; county GOP Chairman and Tamaqua businessman Larry Padora; former GOP Chairman Robert E. Ames, Coaldale; register of wills Michael McCord; county treasurer Jackie McGovern, Auburn, and others.