Ten candidates running for Wyoming County Commissioner in the May 21 primary spoke Thursday night of their stance on issues affecting the county in a public forum at Tunkhannock Area Intermediate Center.
The Commissioners Candidate Forum was sponsored by the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and the Wyoming County Press Examiner.
This included Democrats Mick Cronin, Rick Hiduk and Ernie King, who are seeking two Democratic nominations from the May primary ballot; and Republicans Gene Dziak, Dan Gay, Tina Henning, incumbant Tom Henry, Randy White, Sandra Ritz and Rick Wilbur, who are seeking two Republican nominations from the May primary ballot. The four will then square off in November, vying for three seats.
Press Examiner Editor Bob Baker served as moderator and explained the format for the evening which allowed for an initial 2-minute introduction for each candidate, then offered seven yes-no questions, followed by a generalized question about where they would focus their attention as commissioner if elected; and then each got a randomly selected specific question. That was followed up by two minutes of closing remarks for each candidate.
Yes or no questions
The candidates first answered a series of yes or no questions.
Currently, there is no ‘warm hand-off’ program in Wyoming County for the coordination and tracking of opioid overdose survivors from hospital emergency department through treatment. Do you support having a warm hand-off program in Wyoming County?
The candidates answered yes unanimously.
Do you support Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania plan? It’s a four-year, $4.5 billion plan to rebuild infrastructure and mitigate flood damaged areas with a bond issue backed by a proposed severance tax.
Gay, King and Cronin said yes, while the rest of the candidates said no.
Do you support the natural gas industry?
The candidates answered yes unanimously.
Boarding of prisoners elsewhere is a huge expense to the county. Would you consider building a new jail to alleviate this issue?
Henry, King, Ritz, White, Dziak and Gay said yes, while the rest of the candidates said no.
Will you advocate to raise the minimum wage to the governor’s proposed $12/hour?
All candidates answered yes except for Wilbur, Henning and Henry.
Do you support the use of Narcan to save lives?
The candidates unanimously answered yes.
Are you in favor of a county-wide tax reassessment?
All candidates answered yes except for Ritz, White, Wilbur and Henry.
Areas of focus
In the next portion of the forum, candidates answered one specific question: Past county commissioners have developed an area of focus, such as tourism, human services, economic development, etc. What will be your area of focus and why?
White said it’s important to bring more tourism to the Endless Mountains, as well as more businesses to the community, to try to keep youth in Wyoming County.
Wilbur said his focus would be to get county finances in order and stop raising taxes. Once the county starts saving money, it could begin adding other services such as tourism and farming.
Act 13 funds are not used wisely in his opinion, and they could be used to lower taxes and debt.
Cronin wants to expand the county’s tax base and generate additional revenue. If elected, he plans to develop a jobs task force comprised of bi-partisan community leaders to bring a “diversified portfolio of businesses” to the county, including tourism, technology, agriculture and manufacturing.
He would reach out to the University of Scranton’s small business center and use their guidance to develop a Wyoming County business incubator to help residents develop new businesses.
Dziak said more businesses need to be developed throughout the county, especially industry, as the gas industry and Procter & Gamble have been huge assets.
Gay said he’s a member of a business which has been around in the county for over 100 years, and there are multiple businesses in his family. Loss of business in the county is without a doubt a problem, he said, and bringing in growth, jobs and tax money will be his focus.
This focus will extend outside of Tunkhannock to areas such as Evans Falls, Nicholson and Laceyville, said Gay, who plans to work with the Chamber of Commerce, Tunkhannock Business and Professional Association and more to figure out how to grow the community.
Henning said since 40 percent of the county’s population is vulnerable, her focus would be improving social systems.
Eighteen percent of the county’s children are living in poverty, and 35 percent are living in single-parent homes, Henning said. Most seniors are not receiving Meals on Wheels, and people are living off stores such as Dandy, which as a farm owner, she finds “offensive.”
Community gardens could ensure that children getting free lunches at school could continue to receive healthy meals during the summer break, she said, and programs can teach them how to garden and cook their own food.
Henning also said it would be a priority to address mental health as well, which could help those suffering in the opioid crisis.
Henry said he loves being county commissioner, as each day walking into the courthouse presents new tasks and challenges.
Throughout his time as commissioner, he has dealt with issues in the correctional facility and 911 center, threats of flooding and more.
He said he’s proud of the multiple boards he belongs to and all of the commissioners’ accomplishments over the past few years, such as installing new computers in the courthouse and an RFID system in the jail.
If elected, he wants to continue to look into ways to improve the way business is done in the county.
In regard to the jail question, Henry “never said I would support a new jail, but we’ve had to do some feasibility studies to see if that’s a possibility for us.”
Hiduk said as a former board member of the Endless Mountains Heritage Region, he wants to promote tourism. There are grants available to do this, and the county has missed some opportunities to promote itself as the “gateway to the Endless Mountains.”
Since Commissioner Judy Mead serves on the board and isn’t running again, he hopes he could step into that role as commissioner.
Not having enough work available for bright young people is a problem, he said, and trade school options should be promoted in addition to four-year universities.
Businesses are turning down the opportunity to come to this area, Hiduk said, so it’s necessary to bring natural gas into town.
King said over the past 42 years of being in business in Wyoming County, its “wonderfully intellectual and dedicated” farm community has never ceased to amaze him.
Situations where farmers have been forced out of business grieve him, and he has been researching contractual farming opportunities and the growing “farm to table” movement.
As commissioner, he would want to help provide more opportunities like these to the local agricultural industry.
Ritz said financial stability is of utmost importance, and the county cannot continue to raise real estate taxes.
With Act 13 money, other counties defer real estate taxes to help homeowners. Wyoming County has received over $6 million in Act 13 funds, but taxes continue to rise, she said.
The county needs to use this funding properly, she said. Using it for areas such as human services is fine, but it should not be pilfered or held in reserve.
Ritz also said youth should be encouraged to understand the agriculture community.
Commenting on the jail, Ritz said this should require a voter referendum because it would likely take $42 million to build.
Individual questions were also posed to the candidates before they gave closing remarks.
Dziak was born and raised in Falls Township. He’s a 46-year member of the Lake Winola Fire Co., most recently serving as chief. Dziak is a member of the Lake Winola United Methodist Church, serving as SBRC chair for two terms, and has been director of the Wyoming County Emergency Management Agency for 15 years. He also serves on the Drug and Alcohol Commission for Luzerne and Wyoming Counties and the Hope Coalition.
The recent property tax increase was due in part to the decrease in tax base. What are your plans to stop the spiral of increases?
Dziak said he would hold each county department head responsible for their budgets, which need to be sensible, and attempting to overuse budgets would not be acceptable.
He would also look at union contracts, which need to be fair to employees. However, as a taxpayer himself, Dziak said he will “watch your money like it’s my money” and make sure these contracts are also fair to the taxpayers.
The county also needs to go after the many grants available through the state and federal governments, which he has 15 years of experience doing.
In his closing remarks, Dziak said his mission throughout the last few decades has been to protect the health and safety of Wyoming County residents.
He reminded the public that the county already has a “warm handoff” program at Tyler Memorial Hospital, which he has been working on for the past three years.
This year to date, the county is at only two overdose deaths, showing that these programs are having an impact. As commissioner, he would continue working on these efforts to save lives.
Hiduk is the owner of Endless Mountain Media Services and the editor of Endless Mountain Lifestyles. He also writes for the Rocket-Courier in Wyalusing.
Are you in favor of cleaning our creeks and stream beds to avoid future flooding? Where would you start with this project? How would you propose to pay for it?
Hiduk said it bothers him when he drives through certain areas to see that so little has been done to alleviate debris in the stream and rechannel areas from the 2011 flood.
Some may think engineers get in the way, but they are actually part of the solution, he said. You can’t just dredge a creek out and there are grants available through organizations like FEMA and DCNR, but they’re “site-specific.”
More organizations like the Mehoopany Creek Watershed are needed, which have successfully petitioned for grants and corrected problems one section at a time, as a methodical approach is the best way.
In closing, Hiduk said he wants to create a culture of health in the county, including physical, nutritional, emotional and mental health. As commissioner, he wouldn’t be afraid to renegotiate contracts and make commissioners meeting easy to understand for the public.
White works in the Tunkhannock Area School District and serves on the Tunkhannock Township. He is also police commissioner and EMA coordinator for the township. White has served Triton Hose Co. for 35 years, most recently as chief. He is also a 35-year member of the Fraternal Order of Police and an 11-year member of the American Legion. He coaches track and cross country in the school district and is the former president of the Tunkhannock Area Support Staff Union.
Wyoming County receives approximately $1 million in impact fees annually. Are you aware of the allowable uses of this money? How will you spend the money?
White said he has handled this money as a Tunkhannock Township supervisor, and a list is provided of what the money can be used for, such as infrastructure and emergency services.
It’s the responsibility of commissioners to make sure these monies are dispersed to the greatest need and where they would make the biggest impact, which involves fiduciary responsibility.
In closing, White said he would look at each county office and make sure resources are up to par and running financially sound within their means to take care of each county resident.
As a high school coach, he has seen a lot of youth leave and not come back, which is why he wants to promote business, and also tackle the opioid crisis to make the area as safe as possible.
Henning, who grew up in Meshoppen, owns an organic dairy farm in Mehoopany. She also serves as president of the local Ambulance Association and is a member of the Farmland Preservation Board.
Some residents see towns like Factoryville, Laceyville, Meshoppen, Nicholson and Noxen as entities long forgotten in the way of economic development. What role does a county commissioner have in trying to revitalize them, and what would you do specifically to make that happen?
Henning said as a resident of Mehoopany Township, she understands this concern, and as commissioner she would look into forming a task force to ensure that businesses coming into the area aren’t just centralizing in Tunkhannock.
She would also work with the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission to make sure the county is utilizing all its resources and determine its “business style.”
A consultant, paid for through grants, can also help the county figure out which areas around the county could be enhanced.
In closing, Henning said as a farmer and EMT, she’s used to being available all the time and would apply this to being commissioner.
Her goal is to improve the quality of life and revitalize the county, and she has been attending commissioner meetings for the past six months to think of suggestions.
One of these suggestions is working with the solid waste board to see if there’s a way to recycle agricultural plastics.
Wilbur has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and economics from Penn State University and 40 years of experience as an accounting manager and corporate controller. He’s served as an Exeter Township supervisor for 17 years and is a licensed financial advisor.
What do you think needs to be done to strengthen agriculture in Wyoming County? What are your priorities for agriculture?
Continuing family farms is the biggest issue in this area, Wilbur said, noting that many farmers are forced out of business, and dairy farming has shrunk quite a bit.
He recently spoke with a farmer who said “No one listens to me.” Wilbur plans to meet with farmers like this one if elected to discuss their issues.
The Clean and Green program is helpful to farmers, he said, and a lot of people aren’t even aware of it.
Commissioners can also lobby for these programs, as they have a pipeline to the state government.
In closing, Wilbur said the county is heading down the path of needing to borrow a lot of money again for the pension plan, and encouraged the public to visit his website for more information.
Ritz served as a county auditor for 24 years.
Last October, the state auditor general took issue with Wyoming County not making application for some state funds that were due to the county in the way of bridge inspection reimbursements. Although the funds have been recovered and are now in the county, its hands are now tied as to how the money can be spent. What will you do as a county commissioner to address uses for these funds with PennDOT?
As a former county auditor, Ritz said it was imperative to understand the findings and recommendations of these audits, and she doesn’t understand how 10 years passed without understanding the paperwork and report were not compiled and complete.
She said it was a “lack of responsibility for the governing body of this county,” and this would not happen on her watch.
Commissioners don’t control how the money is mandated, she said, but there are ways to distribute it to the districts, and liquid fuels funds can be used in a variety of ways.
In her closing remarks, Ritz said it’s important to be prudent with taxpayer money and tight with budgets, and the county should find ways to eliminate notes and bonds, as it isn’t “fiscally sound.”
Gay, store manager of Gay’s True Value in Tunkhannock, is a lifelong member of the community. He moved to Arizona to earn a bachelor’s degree in corporate finance and a master’s degree that emphasized immersions and acquisitions. Gay has worked in “million dollar” corporations, which he said helped him learn to negotiate and manage others.
What steps would you take to build a “warm handoff” program, assisting overdose survivors with access to treatment?
The opioid epidemic is “clearly out of control in our community,” Gay said, and the county needs support and education.
Whether elected or not, he would volunteer to help with these areas. It’s necessary to educate the youth and everyone else in the community so they could all come together to combat the crisis.
In his closing remarks, Gay said he wants to make change for everyone in the county, not just himself or his family.
Gay lived in Arizona for 12 years and moved back, and said he hopes he can make an impact that makes everyone love this county again.
King was raised in northern Virginia and attended Virginia Tech for a bachelor’s degree in business and an MBA. He moved to Nicholson with his wife shortly after and eventually opened a tire shop in Tunkhannock.
The county pension fund is currently underfunded. What are your plans to bring the fund into compliance?
This is unfortunately a common situation because of low interest rates in the last decade, King said.
His first priority would be to check on all state and federal programs that address this problem to see what is available to help Wyoming County.
Bidding out or at least entertaining proposals from independent companies that would manage these funds and ensure their safety would also be in his plan.
In closing, King said the job of a commissioner is to promote the lifestyle of Wyoming County and everything that is good about living here. This includes promoting apprenticeship programs to address the needs of local industry, agriculture, tourism and more.
Henry is the chairman of the Wyoming County Commissioners, the Wyoming County Prison Board and the Luzerne Wyoming County Drug and Alcohol Board. He’s on the executive board of Luzerne Wyoming County Mental Health and Disabilities and is a board member of the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission, as well as the Criminal Justice Advisory Board. Henry is a member of the Nicholson Heritage Association, Wyoming Lackawanna County Farm Bureau, Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce and more.
Business owners are heavily over-regulated. How do you plan on working with business owners on their needs, and what areas do you feel a county commissioner can best assist business owners?
Henry said he grew up in family-owned businesses and always tries to support local businesses here.
He talks to them frequently to see how more businesses can be brought in, as they work better with competition, and being a part of the Northern Tier, county planning commission and Chamber of Commerce contributes to this.
Henry also said the pension plan is over 78 percent funded and not in distress. Also, the commissioners only spoke to the warden about the cost of the jail, not the public, and the lowest price was $31 million.
In his closing remarks, Henry complimented Michael Stabinsky, an interim commissioner, and said he’s looking forward to having a full board if reelected.
He commented on the hard work of the commissioners, including the Hope Coalition helping people battling drug addiction. He wants to continue this work, using making the jail a better place with new technology as an example.
Henry said hundreds of thousands of dollars of Act 13 money has been put into the safety of the community with the 911 center and conservation offices, and “there is no reserve.”
Cronin grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and came to the U.S. to study at the University of Scranton. He received a bachelor’s degree in marketing and then his MBA in finance. Shortly after, he moved to Wyoming County with his wife. He has served as a coach/board member of the Tunkhannock Youth Soccer Association, member of the Tunkhannock Township zoning committee, member of the Nativity BVM finance committee and most recently, as a member of the Tunkhannock Area School Board, of which he spent one year as president.
The comprehensive plan has indicated that the county should pursue opportunities for outdoor recreation and tourism. What are your ideas to pursue this action item?
If elected, Cronin said one of the primary goals of his jobs task force would be to grow the tourism industry in the county.
There are abundant opportunities in the county for fishing, kayaking and other outdoor activities, and a “wealth just waiting to be tapped.”
A potential business incubator in the county would also focus on tourism.
Cronin also commented on the opioid epidemic and said a disaster/emergency should be declared in the county. To tackle this problem, he would propose forming a command center and also promote taking a look at how mental health issues fit into the epidemic.
In closing, Cronin said as commissioner, he would put his public service skills background, which includes serving on the Tunkhannock Area School Board, to work for the county.
Making the county affordable and maintaining its quality of life would be priorities, as well as preserving clean air and water and wildlife.
These 10 candidates will be on the ballot during the primary election on May 21. To find your polling place, visit pavoterservices.org.
To view a video of the Commissioners Candidate Forum, visit the “Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce” channel on YouTube.