Berkoben, Lahr and Polome Seeking Whitehall Council Seats
The men are three of four Democrats looking for their party's nomination on May 17.
The Baldwin-Whitehall area will see races for school board and borough/township positions in May 17 primary elections.
One of those positions is Whitehall Borough council member, of which three four-year seats will soon be open. While three Republicans are safe bets to secure their party's nominations for those Whitehall council seats, four citizens are contending on the Democratic side.
Three of those Democrats—Harold Berkoben, Philip Lahr and Steven J. Polome—have formed a committee and are campaigning together, while the fourth—Helen Del Sardo—is running on her own.
Recently, Berkoben, Lahr and Polome conducted a joint interview with the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch to answer questions about their pasts and their plans. (Not every candidate felt it necessary to answer every question.)
Berkoben, 80, is serving his fourth term on the Whitehall Council. He graduated from Westinghouse Memorial High School in 1948 and then joined the U.S. Navy as a 17-year-old before graduating from Geneva College in 1956 with a Bachelor of Arts in economics. He has lived in Whitehall for 55 years, including the past five at the Maiden Bridge Apartments complex. He moved to Maiden Bridge from Baptist Road. Berkoben has done legal work for the past 25 years and was employed before that at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.
Lahr, 75, is also serving his fourth term on the Whitehall Council. He graduated from Carrick High School in 1954 before earning a junior degree from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1962. He has lived in Whitehall for 45 years, including the past five on Steeplechase Court. He moved to Steeplechase from Longwood Drive. Lahr served as a graphic-arts director for two psychological research companies over a 25-year period before becoming a co-owner of a printing company in McKeesport—Super Printing—in 1983. He retired from Super Print 10 years ago but still has some personal clients today.
Polome, 45, has been on the Whitehall Planning Commission since 1997. He graduated from Mount Lebanon High School in 1983 before graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science in computer science. He has lived on Weyman Road in Whitehall for the past 20 years. Polome is a computer-systems manager for BNY Mellon, and before that, worked in the same field for PNC Bank.
- Baldwin-Whitehall Patch: What makes Whitehall Borough attractive to new homebuyers and businesses? What does Whitehall offer that makes it a better place to live and run a company than other municipalities?
Steven Polome: It's a very attractive community, right? The homes are well-kept. The streets are well-kept. We spend a lot of money on our road program every year—hundreds of thousands of dollars on our road program every year to keep the place nice. We have a road crew that's top-notch as far as clearing snow and making sure that all the borough properties are well-kept and well-maintained. They take care of the parks. There are multiple parks here—neighborhood parks. We encourage development here … We're also working with the Caste companies, and being on the planning commission, I understand that … It's attractive. Taxes are reasonable. The value you get for the money that you pay in property taxes and local income taxes is very high—professional police force, low crime. Housing is still affordable here. There is a lot of varied, affordable housing here. You can get something in the $80(,000s) and $90(,000s) here. You can get something in the $300(,000s), so it's a very wide spread of income level here. People who want to buy low-end houses or can buy low-end houses can move in, and people who want to buy larger, four-bedroom (homes or) brand-new townhomes can do that, too. So, there's a lot here to offer for everybody.
Harold Berkoben: There's stability. It's a safe community.
Philip Lahr: We've been voted (before as) the most livable community in Allegheny County. And one of the safest.
- BWP: What qualifies you to be a Whitehall council member?
SP: I've been living here since 1991. I've been attending regular meetings since the late '90s—about '96 or '97. I've been on the Whitehall Planning Commission since '97, and then, I've been vice chair of the Whitehall Planning Commission since about 2000. I am the delegate to Economic Development South from the planning commission and have been for probably six or eight years now, so I know the issues of Whitehall. I know both the planning commission's kind of technical/development side and zoning—why this community is what it is, why it's a bedroom community, very little industry. We try to take care of the commercial areas and keep them as nice as possible—shopping centers. We have one company that is manufacturing—Schneider's Dairy—and that's been around, predates the borough. And we try to make sure that we work with them as much as we can because there's no real zoning you can do anything about up there since they do predate the borough. They're very receptive of what we ask them to do if they hear neighbor complaints and that kind of stuff. Again, my regular attendance at the council meetings means that I understand how the borough operates, how they work, how they keep the taxes low, how we have no debt today. That's going to change in a few months based on the new fire hall, but at the moment, we have no debt. We stay out of debt as much as we can to make sure that we run the borough like people should run their households. And, we do things like, for the fire department, we put a certain amount of money away every year—$100,000 or $150,000 every year—for fire trucks, so when they ask for new fire equipment, we do provide that. I think we support the fire department very well here. They don't need to do fundraising. They have a subscription program—we're very supportive of that—but we do provide their equipment as best as we can with fire trucks and that kind of stuff. And we're building them a new fire hall on (Route) 51.
- BWP: What made you want to run for a spot on the Whitehall Council?
SP: I'm a politics guy. I'm interested in politics—national, local, state—and I started coming with a friend to the (Whitehall) council meetings to see what they were like. And I stayed. (I) got more involved, was talked to by the borough to join the planning commission. I joined the planning commission, and then, once you're involved, it's easy to stay involved, right? It's easy to be interested in the borough and be interested in what happens to it and where it's going and what the direction is. Whitehall Council sets the direction for the borough and what it can do, what it can't do and how to keep it the way that it is. I'm happy with the way that it is. I think there're a lot of challenges. Most of the challenges will be in keeping it the way that it is: a nice bedroom community, safe, very much a place people want to live. A couple times, we've won (a) "Best Place to Live in Pittsburgh" (award). The cost of living's good. Houses are kept well, and we are so close. I work (in) Downtown (Pittsburgh), so living six miles from Downtown in a really nice community is what I love about it.
- BWP: What would you make your No. 1 priority as a Whitehall council member?
SP: To keep the place the same, essentially. There's going to be a lot of challenges. There's taxes that we're going to have to deal with. I don't think, necessarily, that the new budget out of the state's going to affect us this year. It might affect the school district, which will affect, potentially, taxes for the residents, which is problematic for us because the millage may go up. I don't know that. They (the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board) hasn't announced that yet or anything. Just the expenses of the borough—the health care, essentially, is costing us a lot of money. Health-insurance benefits for borough employees are costing us a lot of money. They're just huge increases, and our income base is stable, which is good—it's better than some communities have faired—but it's not increasing so rapidly. Housing prices are not going up rapidly. There's a (real-estate) reassessment next year, but I think there are requirements around (that) so that there's not a windfall from that. So, we're not looking to take out any more money than we have to from the constituents, the taxpayers, but the challenge is from a revenue perspective on our side, from an expense-management perspective.
PL: Protecting the residents of the community.
HB: To continue the improvement of the community, and that includes everything—not just protection, everything.
- BWP: What made you all decide to run together?
HB: Ninety-nine out of 100 elections, be it a Democrat or a Republican, people run together. It's an obvious thing. (This way,) we don't have three or four different people putting signs up with just their name on it or campaigning with just their name … (As for why Polome, specifically, joined Berkoben and Lahr), Steve is the most-qualified guy out there to run. That's obvious. He's at 99 out of 100 council meetings. He participates in the borough.
PL: He even pays his own way to go to conferences.
HB: You'll find that many people on council, if not most, were active in the community (prior to joining the council). We don't just fall off a turnip truck and say, "We're running for council." Some people that run have never been to a council meeting. I doubt if some of them know where the borough building is, but for whatever reason, they're running. I think everyone on (council), some more than others, have had experience within the community prior to running. It became like a natural progression. You take the next step if you so choose.
PL: I think what that's called, Harold, is caring for the community that you live in and wanting to continue to improve the community as we have done. Most of the people who really have been on council, too, in the past, ha(ve) given that kind of time and energy. If you go back to (former Whitehall Mayor Edwin) Brennan's time, he was very active, and many of the other (mayors and council members) were. (Brennan) chose to give a great deal of time and energy to his community.
HB: Although, it's a lot less political than it used to be. Phil looks back with rose-colored glasses. I remember, back in the '50s, the Republicans fought each other like hell to run for council. We didn't have a Democrat in this community until (current) Mayor (James F.) Nowalk and (others) in the '70s, very late '70s.
PL: One of the things that we do, too, is when we ask someone to run, it's because it's a person that's mind-like in how their patterns and their personalities are very similar (to their running mates). We know that they have the same understanding of the community, and they want to do the best for everybody. We don't pick and choose silly things to do. We look and evaluate for a long period of time, and then, see if it's affordable.
HB: And also, we don't micromanage. The manager (James E. Leventry) runs the borough day-by-day, and of course, reporting to him are the public works, recreation director, financial director. We don't go storming into the office and say, "(I) want this done. (I) want that done." Our (borough) staff is five people, and that's pretty lean. And we have a great public-works director, a class police department, and we don't get involved. When I'm chairman of the police committee or public safety, I come down and told the chief a couple of times over the years, "You won't see me down here all year unless you call me down here, if you need my help or anything." We do not micromanage.
PL: I have a little saying I've always said: "I don't look at myself as a politician; I look at myself as an administrator." And that's kind of where we are. You could call us politicians, but we are administrators. We help to set rules and pass law, and our manager manages the borough.
HB: And the thing is, we have very little turnover. We have, basically, with some rare exceptions as fill-ins, we've had, in the history of this borough, three borough managers. We had a police chief up there for 34 years. Plus, he was on the police force longer than that. Public works, the same way. We don't change people on a whim, or they don't leave Whitehall—I'll tell you that. They don't leave it. I just think it's a really well-run, solid community.
SP: I think (Berkoben and Lahr) do a great job. I think that I would agree with 95 percent of the decisions they've made over the last 10 years, 15 years that I've known them, and they certainly have the community as their No. 1 priority. They don't make decisions on any other reason other than making sure that—what I think needs to happen—this community is great the way that it is. And it's always about making sure it stays that way because it gets harder and harder with high expenses, infrastructure. They've made great progress in infrastructure and managing the infrastructure—investments, over time, to make sure that things get better over time and that we continue to make the investment in it rather than stop immediately, and then, (in) five years, we're $2 million behind or $3 million behind in some consent decree.
- BWP: What is the Whitehall Council currently doing that you would like it to continue to do or to stop doing? And why?
SP: I think we take a lot of time making sure that the borough maintains what it needs to maintain and stays the way that it is. So, we spend a lot of time every year looking at roads—how well they look, how they are. (We) spend a lot of time in parks, making sure how well our parks are kept up, and we do spend a lot of time trying to make sure that we're spending the borough's money wisely. I think that's the key. We agonize over $10,000 to make sure that it's right for the borough. When you have a $12 million budget, when you try to go through those particular line items, it takes a lot of time, and it's certainly worth the investment. (As far as something that I'd like council to stop doing), I don't think (there's anything). I don't think so.
HB: But to report that "no," that's sort of a negative connotation of what we are. Can you improve yourself? If you answer "no," that’s sort of …
SP: Arrogant a little bit.
HB: There's always maybe an improvement on what we have been doing, but as far as that goes, I don't see anything on the agenda. We do pretty well.
SP: Council agrees, generally.
HB: Probably 95 percent of the time, we vote, 7-0. (For example,) we've been working on that (new) fire hall for two years, and when we first started, we had a lot of answers and questions from other council members. And the vote came out, 7-0. That's almost unbelievable.
SP: But it's because of the time that (council) spent. (It's) because of the time and effort that was put in.
HB: That's right.
PL: I think what (Berkoben's) saying is some of these questions are probably for someone who hasn't paid attention to the community. It's not only because of us, but it's because of what happened in the beginning of Whitehall Borough—how the understanding was—and we followed that understanding of making it the best community that it could possibly be made. How can we improve each time that we do something? By being patient and understanding. By looking at the financial outlook of everything. While we're looking to see how we always could improve, how do we enhance this community for every person that lives here? We have proven that, and we have taken over for those who were in front of us. And for all the years that we've been in, hopefully, someone will come in and have the same mindset that, whatever you do, it had better be good for each resident because we are residents. So, we get the same benefit or not the same benefit. So, if we have to raise taxes, well then, we raise taxes for us, too. We don't get a free ride … There's not much here to change. If you ask a lot of people outside of Whitehall, they will tell us that Whitehall truly is an oasis, and we even have county officials tell us that. We're so unique in the sense that we're a community that, up until now, had absolutely no short-term or long-term debt, and money in the bank. How does someone do that? How does a community do that? By a group of people working closely, understanding and trying to think ahead.
HB: Also, one thing we don't do too much of in this borough—first of all, our roads are evaluated both by the engineer and public works, for one thing. You'll find very few municipalities in Allegheny County under consent-order of ALCOSAN (Allegheny County Sanitary Authority) that are in as far along as we are. We pay as we go along, and we're in relatively good shape as far as improving our storm-management, our water and our sewers and everything. We're constantly on it. We've spent $700,000 this coming year and last year on roads. Now, there's some boroughs that don't even spend that money on roads. And there's some that spend very little. I think the residents of Whitehall get a big bang for their buck on taxes. For instance, many municipalities charge separately for garbage. We don't.
- BWP: How would Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 2011-12 state budget affect Whitehall? Is an increase in property taxes something that you would consider? Would you support an increase?
SP: I don't think we're there yet. There are limited options when it comes to revenue-generating. I'm not a big fan of tax increases at all. I don't think anybody is. As councilmen, we would pay the same taxes as everybody else does in the community. So, I don't think we're there yet. It'll be a few years before I think we'll have to make that decision on taxes, but being efficient in government is what we need to look for.
HB: I think the citizens will make up their mind. (Berkoben references page 4 of Whitehall Borough's Spring 2011 newsletter.) With the rise in cost, does the public want to keep up with the public services, or should we scale back? And if that's the case (scaling back), I'm sure we'll hear from the public. So, to a great degree, I won't necessarily say that it's totally their prerogative, but we want some input to see how they feel.
PL: Our revenue is dropping. It happened quite a few years ago. It took 24 years for us to raise taxes. Now, it will be something like 15 years if they are raised.
HB: But what I'm saying is, we took a lot of heat, but with that tax increase, we were able to do a lot of things. I mean, the borough is greatly, and I think, physically, been greatly enhanced over the last many years—the ball fields, beautification, for a lack of a better word. I mean, those are just little things. We're in competition. If a family's looking for a home, they're going to look at Bethel (Park). They're going to look at different areas. We got to be competitive, and if you stay at the status quo too long, you're not competitive.
- BWP: What are your feelings on Marcellus Shale drilling in Whitehall? Allowing? Banning? Restricting? And why?
SP: That's a difficult thing. So, nobody wants it when we don't understand, right? I don't know, and I don't think anybody knows, what exactly is coming out of the ground when you're pumping all that water down. And, I think that's a concern. I don't think there's enough information about it. It doesn't seem to me like we're protected enough here. There seems to be still a lot of unknowns about it. I read a lot. I read a lot of things, and nobody's really addressed kind of the environmental impact to this type of thing. I mean, we get oil other places. There's a lot of oil that we've been getting for 30, 40 years that they've kind of put on hold due to environmental issues—offshore drilling we've been doing for a long time. So, I think they should take a hard look at the environmental impact of this. Although, I'm not somebody that likes to pay $4 a gallon for gas either. But, I think there's a process that needs to happen at the state level to really review this.
PL: The Allegheny County Boroughs Association had a meeting, and the chair asked who had an ordinance against Marcellus Shale (drilling). And we were the only ones. We've been so proactive, and that's what makes us different—being ahead of the pack.
HB: This all started about a year-and-a-half ago. I was at a South Hills (Area) Council of Governments meeting where I'm a director to represent Whitehall, and one of the members of the board of directors is a professor of geology at Robert Morris (University). And he spoke about it and all of the disruption that it may cause—environmental impact. So, I came back to (Whitehall) Council, and I said, "We better look into that." It took us over a year. Our solicitor did research, and everybody else. Also, we had a public meeting, and we passed it (an ordinance restricting drilling to certain areas). One of the reasons that prodded us to do this is because the (South Hills) Country Club—it was rumored at the time, and it turned out to be true—had leased some property to the drillers. So, we allowed four areas (for drilling). You can't stop them from drilling. It's a state (law), but you can restrict them to some degree. And we did that.
PL: By law, you have to choose specific areas. You can't restrict it totally because, as we all know, through our legal source and our planning commission, that you can make the law very tight for Whitehall, but you can only go so far. Beyond that, you become vulnerable to be sued. And then, they (drillers) could just come in and do what they want to do. So, not only did our law firm look over our solicitor's group, our planning commission went through it and made sure we were protecting every resident that could be protected.
HB: Technically, it could still be challenged.
PL: Oh, anything can be in law.
HB: But we have it (the restricting) in place, and I guess we'll have to play it by ear.
- BWP: Should the Whitehall Council support the idea of an "overlay district" on Route 51?
HB: I'm in favor as long as we keep control of it.
PL: We've all been working on that for about 15 years. Most of us that have been on council and (Polome) have been working on it for 15 years. (Polome) is the liaison between (the planning commission) and Economic Development South. We've allocated money for the program each time (it's been asked for) to go one step further in hiring the right people or getting the right studies done. It's not us holding it up; it happens to be the county and the state. And that's who we're always fighting.
HB: And PennDOT (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) … (I am in favor) as long as we can opt out, as long as we do have that right. Quite frankly, the people that would benefit most by this is Brentwood (Borough) … If you take (Route) 51 where Whitehall basically begins at Brownsville (Road)—although that's still Brentwood—that area's in pretty good shape. There's no junky stores or junk real estate, and it's pretty well-maintained. That's where the (new) fire hall's going, so that part is pretty well. So, I think that anything that would affect that area in a negative way we would be against. But overall, yes, I think the overlay's good.
PL: Our planning commission has really written a very well-organized kind of zoning for that area already, and you have to remember who is on our zoning board and our planning commission. Our planning commission has engineers on it—people like Steve who are computer(-savvy) and who understand business, people who own an actual computer company. And the other thing you have to remember, the woman who is the head of our planning commission actually helped and created (a) floating dam (practice) … Obviously, you're talking about people who are really advanced and long-term on that board. They know what they're doing. They're those kinds of people.
SP: The overlay district is a good way to start focusing on the Route 51 corridor, which is probably the worst kind of commercial area that we have right now. It is a C-4 zoning district. It's the only C-4 zoning district that we have. Different zoning districts allow different things, and because Route 51 is a high-traffic area, you could potentially allow different things, different setbacks. So, the big thing is we've talked through this overlay district before, and we're getting a grant for it. So, free help's always good. As far as the planning commission goes, we volunteer our time … I believe that accepting an overlay district will get passed (by council). What we just have to be careful of is that we don't lose any control over what it is that we're trying to bring in. It has to be part of us. It has to be what we would want to put there. And that shouldn't be a problem because the overlay district, today, is going to include Brentwood and Whitehall. There's two very similar communities there right along the 51 corridor. Brentwood's on one side, and we're on the other, so having an overlay district for that section I think is fine. I would have other questions if we tried to include Pleasant Hills and Jefferson Hills (boroughs) and some of the other communities. There's a lot more land when you go farther south on Route 51. Jefferson and Pleasant Hills—I agree that the 51 corridor can be looked at as a whole thing, but there are very different requirements when it comes to Century III Mall and Jefferson Hills farther down. There's a heck of a lot more land down there to develop commercially than there is along (Whitehall and Brentwood's) part of 51, and the topology is completely different. There are sides of Whitehall that barely have enough room to put a building down and have the required parking for that zoning district. But again, Brentwood and Whitehall are similar. They're very similar in their topology for both sides of 51. Our C-4 zoning district runs from where Brownsville and 51 meet down to the city line (near) Route 88. That's the C-4 zoning district from a Whitehall perspective, and that's the one that was declared blighted some period of time ago. That was part of the Economic Development South work that we did. It was declared a blighted part of the community so that it could be redeveloped, so that there were certain things that could be redeveloped with it. The rest of the borough wasn't considered that. From Route 51-Brownsville heading south, those are our C-2 district, and there's some very, very good tenants there. We're building our new fire hall there. There's some restaurants and nice office apartments. You know, (Baldwin) High School … so from our perspective, we want to concentrate on the C-4. We've always wanted to concentrate on the C-4, and again, bigger picture, bigger vision for the parkway south is fine. And that's great. But, you know, we're here to concentrate on Whitehall and promote Whitehall and spend Whitehall money. We want to participate as much as we can, but we want to look at our community and make sure it's still part of our community. We'll work out with Brentwood any details that we can take care of, so I'm very much in favor of it. I'll be very much integral in it being that I'm on the planning commission … We think this will encourage development, and that will be the goal.
- BWP: Can Whitehall improve the way that it involves its large refugee population with the borough community?
HB: We do have a large LEARN (Library Easy Access for Residents in Need) bus that visits (the Whitehall Place Apartments complex). We have a big police presence over there, and the fire company has a presence there.
PL: Everybody has to have a place to live. I don't care who they are, and I'm glad that this is such a free country that we can give people that blessing instead of them dying in some horrible war. Some charities did overwhelm us (by sending many refugees here) ... Our outlook is, yes, someday—and this includes Bob (McKown, current Whitehall council member) as well—we would seriously like to find a way to, in easiest terms, eliminate that area, in the general sense—actually buy it or have a contractor or developer (come in). They've outlived their use (the Whitehall Place Apartments). They (ownership) can't upgrade them much more than they are now. They're deteriorating—structurally as well as all of the mechanics inside … It's not that we have bad things happening up there; it's just that people don't understand how to operate the stoves and things. In the early days, people didn't know how to use a toilet. They were never brought into that. They didn't know how to turn the lights on because they didn't know what they were. They were all taught. Do they (the owners) maintain it? No … Would we like to take it down? Yes, in some manner—not to get rid of the people so much, just to enhance the area. Could you build beautiful homes and townhouses over there and have it become a beautiful addition? Yes. And would that do greater things for the community? Yes.
SP: Somebody that lived at the (Whitehall Place Apartments) complex moved down the street from me. They bought a house. I think, in every population, there are good parts and not good parts.
HB: It's no different than what has happened in this country over centuries. Different areas of each city, different areas of each state have immigrants.
SP: We've got to cater to all of the population. They (refugees) live here. We've got to make sure that what happens is good for Whitehall and helps them … It's difficult. There are a lot of landlords that buy things that don't maintain them, right? I think that's part of where we are, so it's this cycle: you don't maintain them, the rent gets lower, and you have problem tenants.
PL: I think one of the things that you can get out of all of this is those of us—and not anything against young folks who we will look for to guide us in the future—but when you hear us and you hear the other (member)s of council, we talk from a lot of experience in life alone, and not only that but from what we've given to this community. That's the enhancement that you hear: what Steve is telling you because he's been around quite a while, and Harold and I and the rest of them on council … I really believe that what you see here is that life experience. We try to put what we've been taught from our parents and the people of our time (to good use). What you should do in life is to make things better for everybody else, and I think that's an important factor in what we say all the time and how we work and live. I don't think there's anything in Whitehall Borough that we list as (major issues), but we look at those (issues), we evaluate each and every one of them very hard and very long, and then, make a decision that we think is best for everybody in the community, which includes us. Politicians, people who run communities, are not created at the time that you begin to run and then you live through whatever that experience is and then you kind of fade away into the air or someplace when it's all over. You're still that same resident when you started, and you're that same resident when you end.
HB: I have always had a deep sense of public involvement and, over many years, have dedicated countless hours on various civic activities and projects within Whitehall. I believe this involvement has given me significant knowledge of our community, which benefits me greatly in performing the duties and responsibilities required of a councilperson.