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By Jack Thompson
Hollidaysburg Correspondent 

Webster Calls Infrastructure, Prison, Blair County's Two Biggest Challenges

 

February 27, 2020

Jack Thompson

Blair County Commissioners (from left): Amy Webster, Bruce Erb, and Linda Burke address the Altoona-Blair County Chamber of Commerce during a question-and-answer session at the monthly Breakfast Club meeting hosted by the chamber on Feb. 13.

During a meeting of the Altoona-Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club on Feb. 13, newly elected Blair County Commissioner Amy Webster gave a summary of what she considers to be the major financial issues affecting Blair County.

Commissioners Bruce Erb and Linda Burke were also present. Erb is an incumbent. Erb and Webster are Republican and Burke is a Democrat.

Webster quoted the county pension fund as a "very large" issue currently affecting the county, though she also stated that the situation is being addressed, and spoke to other matters in greater detail.

"It is my belief that the pension itself is no longer in the emergency status that it once was," she said before moving on to other issues.

Commissioner Webster gave her run-down during a question-and-answer session with the rest of the commissioners present, but her view may not reflect the opinions of the other commissioners.

Commissioner Webster said that the county prison and infrastructure were likely the two biggest sources of concern for the state's ongoing financial welfare. She defined infrastructure as "the roads, highways and bridges that people use every day."

She explained that infrastructure especially has a lot of immediate needs, particularly the state bridges. This is true across the country, as many states have difficulty in maintaining and repairing their bridges, many of which are decades old or more.

Webster said that bridge projects require a "great deal of finesse" that may not be immediately apparent.

Finding money to pay for a bridge repair or reconstruction requires a series of expensive steps, she said. Studies, grants, surveys, and approval from state agencies are all time consuming, and all of it must occur before planning or construction can even begin, Webster said.

Commissioner Webster said that some funds would be available from sources like the state's Marcellus Shale fund, which is money set aside from a tax on companies extracting natural gas and other products from the Marcellus Shale.

In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted an "impact fee" on natural gas wells drilled into Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale resources.

One potential use of the Marcellus Shale fund money is bridge repair, or other infrastructure projects, Webster said.

Though she didn't give details, Commissioner Webster said that the commissioners are working on several infrastructure matters currently and "working together well as a team."

County prison

According to Webster, the second issue facing the county is the prison. The United States holds more prisoners per capita than any other developed country by a large margin, and funding the system of incarceration is a continuous, draining challenge.

According to Commissioner Webster, about one-third of the county's total tax revenues goes to the prison, amounting to about $10 million.

"Imagine having your home filled with 300-something kids and having to keep control. It's a big job," she said.

She noted projections for necessary repairs to the prison are estimated at $40 million. She suggested several methods to potentially curb the total cost.

To control costs, Commissioner Webster included the possibility of accepting prisoners from other counties, allowing prisoners with high likelihood of rehabilitation and low chances of violent behavior to be held in a separate building requiring lower upkeep, or allowing unused commercial and warehouse space to house low-security individuals.

She said that all of those ideas would require an assessment of pros and cons and did not remark on any current plans to make a change to the county prison system.

Following Commissioner Webster's answer, the commissioners answered several more questions from Chamber of Commerce members before the meeting was adjourned.

 

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