Cumberland County’s growth and how to manage its benefits and pitfalls was the major topic of discussion at two forums held this week for county commissioner candidates in the 2019 election.
Local conservative-leaning groups held an event Tuesday night at the Carlisle Fire & Rescue meeting hall, and several Democratic groups held an event Wednesday at Dickinson College.
At both venues, accommodating the county’s population and business growth was the impetus for most of the policy discussions, centering on public transit, affordable housing and de-congesting Interstate 81.
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“We have to manage our growth, that is probably the key issue, or set of issues, that we are dealing with in Cumberland County,” said Gary Eichelberger, one of the Republican incumbents, on Tuesday.
But all of the candidates ran up against the issue facing Pennsylvania’s county governments: the fact that much of a county’s operations and funding are dictated to it by the state, while most of the localized development decisions are handled by municipal planning boards.
“I think one of the best things your commissioner can do for you is be your lobbyist,” said Jean Foschi, one of the Democratic contenders.
As fellow Democrat Michael Fedor pointed out on Wednesday, Cumberland County is ranked close to the bottom of Pennsylvania counties in the per-capita funding it receives from the state.
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Its position is arguably the worst, Fedor said, since those counties that receive less funding per resident are the Philadelphia suburban counties, which have higher incomes and property values from which to draw their own tax revenue. Pushing the state for fairer funding is one of the main policy avenues the county commissioners have.
All three county commissioners’ seats, which carry four-year terms, are up in 2019. This year’s primary is May 21, where Democratic and Republican voters will each choose two candidates from their respective parties to advance to the November general election.
The top three-vote getters become the commissioners, creating a board with two majority-party and one minority-party member.
The Republican primary this year is uncontested, with the only candidates being Eichelberger and his fellow current county commissioner Vince DiFilippo, who are running as a ticket.
During Tuesday’s forum, both Republican incumbents stressed their efforts to improve public transit in the county in the face of a difficult situation with Capital Area Transit, the transportation agency run by Cumberland and Dauphin counties and the city of Harrisburg.
Cumberland County has pushed to reform CAT by merging its administrative functions with Rabbit Transit of York, the public agency that the county has already worked with to expand its transit benefits for the elderly and disabled.
“We have (been) stymied time and time again by Dauphin County and the City of Harrisburg,” Eichelberger said, saying that the existing transit agency is still tied to a “hub and spoke” model of bus routes that may work for downtown Harrisburg but aren’t successful in Cumberland County.
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“We could save money administratively and put it toward more bus routes,” DiFilippo said of consolidation.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we will go out on our own,” he said, with Eichelberger adding that the county contract to be part of CAT expires in 2023. Officials will meet in June to discuss reconfiguring transit routes to better suit Cumberland County, DiFilippo said.
On Wednesday, the Democratic candidates got into the issue further. With the retirement of Democratic commissioner Jim Hertzler, the field is wide open, with Fedor, Foschi, Donald Travis and Kate McGraw in the running.
Travis suggested that the county could work to introduce High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes and a “slug line” carpooling system between Carlisle and Harrisburg to address congestion, something Travis said worked well to fix similar issues in the northern Virginia suburbs years ago.
But a true fix will almost certainly have to involve fully widening I-81 between Carlisle and Harrisburg, the candidates agreed. This will involve lobbying for state and federal dollars, but isn’t as far out of reach as some may think, Fedor said, citing the recent allocation of state funding for the widening of Route 322 near State College.
The candidates also discussed rising housing costs in the county, which have outpaced wage growth for many and increased the number of families who are considered cost-burdened by rent, according to Census data.
Foschi said this will involve lobbying the state for better funding of the county’s housing authority programs, which have proportionally seen cuts under recent budgets from Harrisburg. She also suggested that Gov. Tom Wolf’s push for a minimum wage hike could help address the disparity.
Fedor also suggested that the county implement a wage gap study of itself, as well as the county’s numerous contractors, to make sure that public service providers are being paid fairly, which could also address economic disparities.
Travis said the county could also do more to encourage and incentivize contractors to repair the county’s stock of cheap but run-down homes that are often considered more trouble than they’re worth, but could help address affordable housing and development concerns if rehabilitated.
“When you see a $32,000 home for sale that’s ready to fall apart because there’s no one available to fix it, that’s a problem,” Travis said.
McGraw, while unable to attend the forums, indicated via email that she broadly agreed with the need to rehabilitate the county’s housing stock and improve its public bus system, and said the county should be doing more to keep tabs on decaying transit infrastructure due to increasing traffic loads as well as damage caused by increasingly wet weather.