Democratic State Rep Candidates Comment on Business Issues

As organizations that collectively represent close to 600 area businesses, the Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce and Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau recognize the importance of maintaining connections with elected officials. Our joint Government Affairs Committee addresses issues that impact our members and communities. The Committee recently invited the two Democratic candidates for State Representative for the 109th District to provide their position on issues of importance to the business community prior to the April 24th primary. Neither the Chamber nor Visitors Bureau endorses any political party of specific candidate.

James Geffken, 38, lives in Benton and serves as the Director of Buildings and Grounds for the Berwick Area School District. Daniel D. Knorr, II, 26, lives in Bloomsburg and has been Mayor of the Town since 2005. He works as an auditor for Rose Consulting in Lightstreet.

 

Last year, the Legislature passed Act 6 of 2011 which reformed Pennsylvania’s Unemployment Compensation system. However, the system still has holes that burden employers and allow abuse. Further, the reforms did not solve the insolvency of the UC Trust Fund. What additional reforms do you feel are needed to the UC system?

Geffken: First off, I would agree that there are some holes in Act 6 which allow for potential abuse of the Unemployment Compensation system. In my opinion, Act 6 should have been presented as an either / or scenario. Either an agreed upon severance package representing greater than 40% of an expected annual salary, or eligibility to collect Unemployment Compensation for  a defined time period (All of which should exclude payments for pension, retirement, accrued leave or defined supplemental benefits.). The current act forces businesses to calculate a payment for severance for exiting employees based on a probable reduction in the company’s Unemployment Compensation contributions for said employee going forward. It does not alleviate the financial burden on the employer. The current set up allows the recently unemployed to double dip with both cash payouts and adjusted Unemployment Compensation income. I do not believe that this creates incentive to return to the workforce. 

Knorr: With the recent recession and long-term high rates of unemployment, Pennsylvania has been paying out more money from its UC Trust Fund than it has been taking in over the past several years, resulting in a UC Trust Fund deficit of approximately $4 billion. While unemployment compensation is a crucial and necessary safety net for those who are out of work through no fault of their own, the benefits being offered have, over time, grown beyond the system’s original intent as a temporary measure for those who have given their efforts and abilities to the workforce. 

Unfortunately, there has been no action to address the UC Trust Fund’s insolvency and federal obligation. As State Representative, I will actively work to bringPennsylvania’s Unemployment Compensation system closer to its original intent and purpose by tightening eligibility and beneficiary accountability, by supporting measures that reduce system abuse, and by fighting to ensure that UC Trust Fund solvency is not restored solely on the backs of the already-struggling business community.

 

What reforms, if any, do you feel are needed to Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation system?

Geffken: I believe that one of the main issues is the perception of and unfortunate reality of the systems abuse. I would like to see the development of a continual evaluation, and occupational therapy / retraining program set into effect as a condition of acceptance of Workers’ Compensation payments. While I remain sensitive to the needs of injured workers, I believe that the rehabilitation and when necessary retraining of workers is vital to validating the Workers’ Compensation process. Workers’ Compensation is ideally structured as a short term solution but too often becomes a drug out process en-route to disability claims. I believe that safeguards can be added to the process which would insure the active participation of claimants in their own recovery.

Knorr: As Mayor of the Town of Bloomsburg, a role in which I oversee nearly fifty employees across several different fields, I recognize the importance and support the payment of benefits to employees injured as the result of work-related occupational injuries and illnesses.  However, I likewise understand the need to protect employers’ rights, benefits and interests, too. 

There has been little activity in the legislature towards finding ways to improve Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation system. As State Representative, I would actively work to ensure that benefits are only for legitimate, work-related occupational injuries and illnesses and that the ultimate goal of the system is to aid in the safe return of employees to productive and rewarding employment.

 

A number of bills were advanced by the House Labor and Industry Committee last October which would reform Pennsylvania’s Prevailing Wage Act. (H.B. 1271, H.B. 1685, H.B. 1329, H.B. 1367, H.B. 1541, H.B. 709, H.B. 1191) Most of these bills have stalled due to lack of support. Do you support any or all of these bills?

Geffken: The pending reforms to the Pennsylvania Prevailing Wage Act are pretty interesting.  Although these House Bills are presented in several forums as a block, their potential impacts should be discussed individually.

  • House Bill 709 – Makes the Prevailing Wage Act a local option for school districts by school board referendum.

This Bill along with HB1191 and HB1271 is really at its heart a Right toWork State versus a Prevailing Wage State issue. The danger of this lies in its underlying union busting agenda. I believe that many of the issues that impede the daily operations challenges of school districts would be alleviated by the passage of HB1329 which would raise the Prevailing Wage Act bid threshold.

  • House Bill 1191- Makes the Prevailing Wage Act a local option for municipalities or school districts by ordinance or referendum.

This is really just an expansion of HB 709 with the addition of municipalities and the ability to opt out of Prevailing Wage through ordinance which could be done at one time and therefore avoid the need for continual per project referendum votes. Again, I believe that a properly constructed HB1329 could trump this issue.

  • House Bill 1271- Exempts several basic road maintenance actions from the Prevailing Wage Act.

Again, this could be handled under HB1329 and would be redundant for projects under a reasonable financial threshold, which routine maintenance should fall within. I believe that it is unnecessary legislation.

  • House Bill 1329- Increases the total cost that a public project must exceed in order to fall under the jurisdiction of the Prevailing Wage Act from $25,000.00 to $185,000.00 – to then be adjusted annually based on changes to the Consumer Price Index.

I completely agree with this piece of legislation and I believe that it is the key to finding a proper balance between protecting the integrity of major projects and union jobs without holding local school districts and municipalities hostage over union wages during routine maintenance and small project development.  I also believe that this piece of legislation promotes opportunities for smaller scale, local businesses to serve their communities in an expanded role, as it gives them an option to compete for mid-level projects, and maintenance contracts.

  • House Bill 1541- Requires a public project to be at least 51 percent publicly funded in order to fall under the Prevailing Wage Act.

This Bill could come under fire for not having a cap dollar amount.  I believe adding one would make it more passable.  However, I personally think that this is a good way to encourage more private / public partnerships for community and school improvement projects.

  • House Bill 1685- requires the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to develop one set of job classification definitions for use by contractors statewide, making compliance with the Prevailing Wage Act’s payment requirements easier for contractors.

I would support this.  The current system is confusing, difficult to enforce and an unnecessary burden on contractors, architects, engineers and specification writers.

Knorr: In my role on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, I have continually fought for reform of Pennsylvania’s Prevailing Wage Act.  While I support fair and gainful wages for those contracted to work on large, expansive projects, due to a complete lack of legislative action since 1961, the current cost threshold of $25,000 includes virtually every public infrastructure undertaking. 

As State Representative, I will work to increase the threshold to reflect the current value of the dollar, fight to better define those projects that fall under the prevailing wage mandate, and look to automatically adjust the project threshold for inflation moving forward so thatPennsylvaniadoes not find itself in this same situation again.

 

Governor Corbett’s proposed 2012-13 budget would permanently eliminate $30M in conservation, park and recreation funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and use the Fund to pay for general government operations. (http://conservationadvocate.org/keystone-fund/) Do you support this proposal?

Geffken: Governor Corbett’s proposed elimination of $30,000,000.00 in funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund is just plain wrong.  I do not and will not support any legislation that threatens to undermine the continued management and development of our natural recreational environment. I am and avid outdoorsman who would argue for the addition of funding and absolutely stand in opposition to any reductions in this important funding stream.

Knorr: I do not support Governor Corbett’s proposal. The Keystone Fund, which allocates a small portion of the state’s real estate transfer tax to recreation, conservation and open space, has been overwhelmingly supported and utilized by the voters of Pennsylvania since its inception in 1993. The monies invested into the Keystone Fund have been used at every level of Pennsylvania government to improve outdoor recreational opportunities, enhance health, and stimulate local economies.

Governor Corbett’s proposal puts a quick, one-time boost over long-term investment in the quality of life for the people of our Commonwealth. It is a short-sighted proposal that attempts to make up for the lack of a true, comprehensive economic plan and vision. One ofPennsylvania’s greatest assets is our natural habitat, and as State Representative, I will fight to ensure that our citizens have the chance to experience and enjoy it.

 

Do you have an economic development plan or goals for the Commonwealth?

Geffken: I believe that it is time to develop legislation that will more effectively deal with Property Tax Reform. One of the main weaknesses in our current system is in the unfairness of the current assessment process. I would propose that Property Tax be levied based upon agreed property value at the time of construction or sale, with reassessment only at the time of re-sale or renovation.  This would have the two fold effect of increasing taxable revenue for municipalities and school districts by providing real higher taxable value for recently sold and renovated properties, while protecting the assets of long term property holders and senior citizens.

Knorr: Currently, there is little to no economic leadership or vision being proposed for our Commonwealth. We are moving from one budgetary crisis to the next, and our legislators merely hope for better revenues and increased economic activity. As Mayor of the Town of Bloomsburg, I have shown that economic success and fiscal responsibility can be had even in the midst of the worst of recessions, producing three, consecutive surpluses while fighting any attempt at raising taxes during my five years in the position.

In order to better develop our economy and become more competitive, our legislature needs to first recognize the important role investment plays in our Commonwealth’s long-term economic health. While I will always be on the lookout for waste and abuse as State Representative, we cannot reduce or decline our way to prosperity. Rather, I will fight to ensure continued investment in our infrastructure, higher education, public education, and quality of life.

Secondly,Pennsylvania needs a more competitive corporate income tax structure.  At 9.9%, the Commonwealth has one of the very highest rates in the nation. By reducing business tax rates, closing loopholes, creating a tiered system so that people have an incentive to start small, start-up businesses, and by closing the “Delaware loophole” that allows companies headquartered in Delaware but operating in Pennsylvania the ability to write-off trademarks, patents, or investments as business expenses, thereby reducing their tax obligation to Pennsylvania, we can make our Commonwealth more competitive, business-friendly, and prosperous.

The 109th District needs a state representative who will actively pursue such economic and fiscal reform and will become a leader for Columbia County as well as for Pennsylvania.

The 71st Annual Membership Dinner & Awards: A Great Success!

Member businesses and individuals of The Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce were recognized during the organization’s 71st Annual Meeting on Thursday, February 2nd.  The event was held at Rolling Pines Golf Course & Banquet Facility in Berwick, and was sponsored by PPL Corporation. 

More than 190 people attended the dinner meeting which celebrated outstanding member achievements, elected members to the Board of Directors, highlighted Chamber activities of the past year, and previewed the year ahead.

During the event, four Chamber Member Awards were presented for their significant contributions to the business community.  The Small Business of the Year Award, sponsored by First Columbia Bank & Trust, was presented to Walker’s Jewelers of Berwick.  The Large Business of the Year Award, sponsored by the Columbia Alliance for Economic Growth, was presented to Kawneer Inc. / Alcoa Foundation.  The Community Progress Award, sponsored by Berwick Hospital Center, was awarded to Service 1st Federal Credit Union of Danville.  And the Outstanding Citizen Award, sponsored by the Berwick Industrial Development Association, was presented to Eileen Chapman.

Featured from left to right: Joe Scopelitti of PPL (Chamber Board Chair) , Axel Heinrich of Kawneer/Alcoa Foundation, Jeff Cerminaro of Walker’s Jewelers, Karen Wood, Tom Rambo, & Linda Brown of Service 1st Federal Credit Union, Eileen Chapman of AGAPE, and Fred Gaffney (Chamber President)

The Road to Recovery: We Can All Play a Role

By Fred Gaffney, President

The impacts of the flooding in our area will be felt for weeks, months, and, likely, years. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes, with many wondering where their next home will be. Roads, bridges, and other infrastructure is being repaired. Businesses, parks, and other public places have been decimated. One has to wonder when life might feel “normal” again.

There is at least one silver lining in this tragedy, the community spirit which has helped carry us through. There cannot be enough praise for the emergency responders and officials who were engaged from the earliest hours of the emergency until all were out of harm’s way. Human service providers including the Red Cross, Salvation Army, AGAPE, and other groups worked tirelessly to provide essential services to those directly affected. And the response by thousands of friends and neighbors who have stepped up to volunteer and make donations has been remarkable.

While the toil in the early days was exhausting, the work, as well as the need for assistance, is far from over. Homes, businesses, and properties are still rebuilding. Human service agencies need financial support to pay for the food, lodging, cleanup supplies, medicine, and many other ongoing needs. Everyone in the area can help in some way.

In addition to the thousands of homes that were damaged, dozens of businesses, including our area’s largest manufacturers, small retail and service businesses, and non-profits agencies, were also flooded. The loss of power and running water forced the shut down of many more for days. The subsequent cancellation of the Bloomsburg Fair dealt another blow to hundreds of local businesses that rely on the event. While the total economic loss as a result of the flooding cannot be fully calculated, it is staggering just to consider. Among the many ways to help rebuild our communities is to support the local businesses that provide our economic base in the form of jobs, taxes, and other resources. Eat at local restaurants, shop for goods and holiday gifts, and utilize them for services. We can all play a role.

Our ability to fully recover relies on an ongoing spirit of community. Your friends, family and neighbors are also people who work at or own these local businesses. Remember them as well, and utilize them whenever possible.

NLRB Unionization Posting Rule Takes Effect

Rule fails to describe consequences of exercising the rights to unionize.

From PA Chamber of Business & Industry

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board issued its final rule requiring most private-sector employers to notify employees of their rights to form, join or assist a union and engage in collective bargaining. The rule takes effect on Nov. 14, 2011.

The notice of rights will be provided at no charge by NLRB regional offices or can be downloaded from the board website and printed in color or black and white. Translated versions will be available, and must be posted at workplaces where at least 20 percent of employees are not proficient in English.

More information about the new requirements is available here.

In February, the PA Chamber sent a letter to the NLRB expressing opposition to the rule, which the business community views as biased, in conflict with the National Labor Relations Act, and as presenting numerous practical problems.

Specifically, the PA Chamber voiced concern that the rule failed to describe any of the consequences of exercising the rights to unionize, such as giving up the right to deal directly with the employer. It also does not mention the important right to object and refuse to pay union dues or fees for political purposes, nor does it describe the right to decertify or leave a union.

There are also questions as to whether NLRB has the statutory authority to adopt such a rule, which is yet another example of the agency’s over-reaching agenda that favors the interests of big labor over private-sector employers.

Chamber Launches Business Connect, Brings Businesses to Consumers

The Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce is offering local consumers a new way to shop for services. As part of a recently completed website renovation, The Chamber’s site has incorporated Business Connect, an on-line service that makes it easier for shoppers to request information on products or services from local merchants. Business Connect offers a local version of increasingly popular websites designed to assist consumers in locating products and services. 

Similar to the popular website Angie’s List, Business Connect provides consumers with the ability to contact multiple businesses with one message. After filling out a simple request form, the site uses an advanced content management database to relay the consumer’s message to every Chamber member in the business category specified by the user.  This new service streamlines the process of ‘shopping’ for products and services by linking consumers with the local businesses offering the services they are seeking. The advantage of Business Connect is that, unlike Angie’s List, it is a free service that only uses local companies and no registration is required.

“Our goal is to make it as simple as possible for people to request information from our local businesses,” says Fred Gaffney, President of The Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce. “Establishing this connection not only provides consumers with easier access to our members, but it also encourages local spending.”

“The consumer – business relationship is changing, particularly with younger generations,” explains Gaffney.  “Business Connect brings businesses to the customer, instead of the other way around.”

Business Connect is located in the Business Directory section of the Chamber’s website, www.columbiamontourchamber.com.  For more information, call 784-2522.