Budget Hearings Get Underway in Harrisburg

Lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees engaged in a somewhat tense exchange with Wolf administration officials last week as the first week of budget hearings kicked off.

In the most widely reported budget hearing, Budget Secretary Randy Albright faced off with Senate Republicans in the first Senate Appropriations budget hearing. Over five and a half hours, Albright defended the governor’s proposed $33.29 billion spending plan and warned of a $2 billion structural deficit going into the 2016-17 fiscal year. Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, stated plainly that he and many other Senate Republicans had voted on the long-defunct “framework” agreement because there was an understanding that pension reform and liquor reform would be included in a final deal. With those two issues no longer on the table, he told Albright “You’re asking a lot… and you’re going to have to work a lot harder to get that (tax increase) vote out of me.”

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale appeared last week before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, where he was asked whether he would be willing to audit Gov. Wolf’s expenditures during the first six months of the fiscal year when no spending had been authorized – a fact reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. His office is now said to be reviewing the audit request. DePasquale also discussed school district borrowing during the budget impasse, saying that districts incurred up to $45 million in interest charges. He also warned that the six months of education funding the Governor approved in December will soon run dry; and that schools will need to borrow within a matter of weeks if the 2015-16 budget remains unresolved. Another important topic addressed during the Auditor General’s budget hearings was the Wolf administration’s intention to eliminate the Public Employee Retirement Commission, which analyzes municipal pension budgets. Calling PERC’s work “critical,” DePasquale said that independent analysis of the pension systems is necessary to address the real level of debt and work toward solutions on making the pension systems sustainable.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees also hosted the Independent Fiscal Office last week. The IFO confirmed that the state faces a nearly $2 billion structural deficit for 2016-17 and there will be a residual shortfall of roughly $300 million this fiscal year; but that revenue estimates for 2015-16 are expected to be about $200 million more than originally anticipated. When asked how not replacing federal stimulus dollars would impact the structural deficit, IFO Director Matthew Knittel told House Appropriations members that the federal stimulus money was meant to be temporary and not meant for long term purposes. “Long term computations would not enter into the deficit projections,” he stated. “If the federal funds were there and then removed then I would think it would appear as though there were a deficit.” PLS also reported that when asked what portion of the increased expenditures in the proposed budget is caused by mandatory increases, Knittel noted that they are made up by pensions, debt and increases in certain programs in the Department of Human Services and the Department of Corrections.

Budget hearings continue this week.

What Services Are You Looking For?

The Columbia-Montour Partnership for Community Development has engaged National Travel Center (NTC) to investigate the possibility of moving the Chamber and Visitors Bureau from fair share membership dues to a hybrid structure where the amount assessed to each constituent depends on the services provided. Under such a structure, members have the opportunity to determine the specific package of services that benefit them most from a menu. Other chambers and visitors bureaus that have made this change believe the structure enables them to be more responsive to member needs.

Before deciding whether or not a change in membership structure is appropriate, we are holding a focus group meeting with members to brainstorm the types of services that would be of greatest benefit if offered by the Partnership. NTC will begin the session with information about the types of programs that are being offered by chambers and visitor bureaus. Participants will be encouraged to suggest services that would be particularly valuable, beyond any list offered by others. The focus group will be held on Wednesday, March 2nd at the Bloomsburg Fire Hall from 3:30 – 5:00 p.m.

Please consider taking the time to attend this focus group and provide your input.  To register, please click here.

Who Won Our Annual Awards?

Congratulations are in order for the recipients of awards presented at the first combined Annual Dinner for the Chamber and Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau.  The event, sponsored by PPL Electric Utilities, was held at Rolling Pines Golf Course this past Thursday, February 11th.

Mary Clapp received the Outstanding Citizen Award, sponsored by BIDA.  Geisinger-Bloomsburg Hospital was named the Large Business of the Year. This award was sponsored by the Columbia Alliance for Economic Growth.  Key Partners Realty, LLC received the Small Business of the Year award, sponsored by First Columbia Bank & Trust Company. Pump House Weddings and Bed & Breakfast was awarded the Community Progress Award, which was sponsored by the Berwick Hospital Center. Bill’s Bike Barn won the Visitors Bureau’s Travel & Tourism Buddy Award, presented by Knoebels Amusement Resort.   Be sure to congratulate all winners when you next see them!

Budget Proposal Includes Minimum Wage and PIT Increases

On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled his 2016-17 state budget proposal to a joint session of the state House and Senate. The address was different than any other in the Commonwealth’s history, as the Governor gave it at the same time that parts of the current fiscal year’s spending plan remain unfinished.

While the Governor did not mention any details in his address, the 2016-17 proposal includes an 11 percent increase in the personal income tax from 3.07 to 3.4 percent, an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.15 an hour, a natural gas extraction tax, and expanding the sales tax on some items. Wolf had proposed a number of these changes in the 2015-16 budget, but backed off as the negotiations continued.

One of the major unresolved issues for 2015-16 is education spending levels. The governor continues to demand $377 million more for basic education funding this year – a number that was reached in a budget framework agreement that crumbled in December. He added another $200 million in the 2016-17 budget proposal plus an additional $60 million for pre-K education

In response, Republican legislative leaders told reporters that the governor is acting irresponsibly with his spending demands.  Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said Gov. Wolf is “doubling down on his failures to provide leadership on accomplishing a bipartisan budget agreement by asking for even more taxpayer money without addressing the changes needed for long-term relief for Pennsylvania schools.”

Bloomsburg Council Reconsiders Parking Enforcement Change

On Monday, February 8th, Bloomsburg Town Council did not approve changes to parking meter enforcement times. The majority of Council members agreed to let a newly-formed sub-committee on parking discuss management issues and make recommendations. Members of the business community were on hand to restate their concerns and thanked Council for listening.

Prior to two votes on the issue, Council heard several statements opposing the changes, including one developed by the Chamber and co-signed by 51 business people, who are listed below. The first vote to adopt the changes as advertised did not pass with a 3-3 vote. A member of Council was absent. A motion was then made to re-advertise the ordinance, which included a number of changes to parking enforcement, but without the changes to enforcement times. That vote passed 4-2.

Prior to that meeting, the Town’s Community and Economic Development Committee agreed to create a parking sub-committee involving community stakeholders. The Chamber and Downtown Bloomsburg, Inc. have been invited to participate. “We look forward to working with the Town and other stakeholders to develop long-term strategies for parking management in Bloomsburg,” said Fred Gaffney, Chamber President.

Thanks to the members of Town Council for listing to the concerns of the business community, as well as those business people that signed on to the joint statement to express their concerns:

Fred Gaffney
President, Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce
CEO, Columbia Montour Partnership for Community Development
 Ashok Patel
Owner, Bloom Tobacco
Ready Go Burrito
YoChoice Frozen Yogurt
David “Otto” Kurecian
Executive Director, Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau
COO, Columbia-Montour Partnership for Community Development
 Deanna R. Pealer
Owner, Deanna R. Pealer, Attorney-at-Law
Property owner, 128-130 West Main Street
Robert Stoudt
Board President, Columbia-Montour Partnership for Community Development
 Dennis R. Peters, P.E.,
President, Peters Consultants, Inc.
President, Criterium Peters Engineers, Inc.
Sherry Aungst
Owner/Operator, Sherry’s Hair Co.
 Kirk Pfaff
Assistant Manager
Ready Go Burrito
 Sara Baker
Co-Convener, Artspace Gallery
 Paul Reichert
Caldwell Consistory
 Michael Barletta
Owner, Infinity Vapes
 Joseph Reilly
Owner, President and General Manager, Columbia Broadcasting Company
Co-owner, 124 East Main St.
 Michelle Beaver
Uncle Paul’s Stuffed Pretzels
 Nancy Reilly
Owner, VP and Treasurer, Columbia Broadcasting Company.
Co-owner, 124 East Main St.
 Hans W. Bottesch II, DC
Owner, Bloomsburg Spine & Sport
 Mary Jo Skjoldal
Owner, Family Balance Acupuncture
 Bruce Bowman
Owner, Sneidman’s Jewelry Store
 Jared Snyder
General Manager, Ready Go Burrito
 Leane Coladonato
Owner, The HeadQuarters
 David L. Soltz, Ph.D.
President, Bloomsburg University
 Vince DeMelfi
Owner, Susquehanna Realty
Landlord, 102 West Main Street
Board Chair
 Harry Strausser, III
President, Remit Corporation
 Peggy Dildine
Owner, Peggy’s Massage
Allure Hair & Body
 John Thomas
President, Columbia County Historical &
Genealogical Society
Oren B. Helbok
Executive Director, The Exchange
Frans Verstraeten
Owner, Dutch Wheelman
Angela Dawn Hess
Administrative Director, Box of Light
Tim Wagner
Owner, Wagner’s Trophies & Engravables
Sarah Walzer
Toby Diltz
Owners, The Blind Pig Kitchen
Kim Angelo Keck
Owner, Exclusively You
Jon White-Spunner
Managing Director, Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble
Lydia Kegler
Director, Bloomsburg Public Library
Linda L. Woodward, SRA
Owner, Lynwood Real Estate Appraisal Co.
Jeff Lylo
Owner, J. Lylo Jewelers
Mike Zarrett
Owner, Towne Camera
Property owner, 152-154 West Main Street &
160 West Main Street
Kayla McCready, LMT
Owner, Healing Through Touch Massage Therapy
Matt Zoppetti
Sunset Holding, LLC
Susan McGarry, RA, LEED AP
Owner, ArchCentral Architects, Inc.
Nick McGaw
Owner, Endless Records
Catherine McLaughlin
Catherine McLaughlin, MEd, Licensed Psychologist
Douglas Michael
Owner, Bakers’ Guild Café
Quincey Morton-Swartz
Kirsten Swartz-Morton
Owners, Wanderlust Café
Rose Neiderhiser
Owner, Lil Kids Stuff
Jim Nemeth
Human Resources Director, Autoneum North America
Marc Nespoli
Owner, Xtreme Row
Pat O’Connell
Owner, The Law Office of Patrick O’Connell