Three Whitehall Republicans Aiming for Borough Council Seats
Robert McKown, James DeGrazia and Chris Mooney will challenge three Democrats.
The Baldwin-Whitehall area will see races for school board and borough/township positions in Nov. 8 general elections.
One of those positions is Whitehall Borough council member, of which three four-year seats will be open. Three Democrats—Harold Berkoben, Philip Lahr and Helen Del Sardo—will face three Republicans—Robert McKown, James A. DeGrazia and Chris A. Mooney—for those seats.
Prior to primary elections in May—May 4, this year, to be exact—McKown, DeGrazia and Mooney 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.)
McKown, 55, is a lifelong Whitehall resident and a longtime Whitehall councilman who has been on the borough’s council every year but two since 1993. He graduated from Baldwin High School in 1974 and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Robert Morris University in 1983. He currently resides on Mooreridge Drive, is a certified public accountant (CPA) and is a firm administrator and manager for Goff, Backa, Alfera & Company, LLC.
DeGrazia, 62, lives on East Brightview Avenue in Whitehall but is originally from Green Tree Borough. He graduated from Keystone Oaks High School in 1966 and received a bachelor’s of science in business administration degree from Waynesburg University in 1970. He is now a consultant for ACTION-Housing after formally retiring from banking in 2009, when he was a vice president and business banker for PNC.
Mooney, 53, grew up in Pittsburgh’s Stanton Heights neighborhood and graduated from Peabody High School in 1976. He earned an accounting degree with a minor in economics from Robert Morris in 1986. He has worked at AAA East Central for the past 23 years and is now the quality assurance coordinator there for emergency road service. He has lived on East Lawnview Drive since 1997.
- 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?
Robert McKown: It’s a safe community. It’s a fair community with a tax base that has been able to provide great services to the residents. The school district’s great. My kids went through the school(s). I did, too. Safe. There’s a lot of recreation activities in close proximity to various venues, even downtown (Pittsburgh) and some of the other things there. So that’s why it’s such a great place to live. Business-wise, Whitehall’s not really a business community; it’s more of a bedroom community. There are some businesses located on the (Route) 51 corridor and some at Caste Village, but Whitehall hasn’t really been a traditional business (community). And I would compare that to, like, Brentwood. Brentwood has more of a business district than Whitehall does with Brownsville Road and more of 51. But still, the business climate here in the South Hills—and Jim (DeGrazia) could probably attest to this because of his banking experience—it’s a nice, close-knit community area. People get to know one another. It’s a nice business environment. There’s some good resources here, good services here to pull from.
James DeGrazia: You can say what you want about Route 51, but I’ll tell you what: If you need to get to the (Pittsburgh International) Airport, you can get there from 51 to the parkway. 51 to Pittsburgh. 51 to (Route) 79. 51 going out the other way, going east, to Rostraver, out that way. So, you know what?: You have pretty easy access to the major arteries that are going to get you to where you need to go.
Chris Mooney: One of the things is it seems, in my experience anyway—not growing up here—people don’t leave this place.
CM: Bob (McKown)’s a testament to that, and there’s thousands of others—literally, thousands of other families that have been here since Day One. It’s quiet. It’s safe. I certainly want to keep it that way. One of the studies that I was looking at from 2008—this was published by the Allegheny Institute (for Public Policy)—where they looked at what the tax rates were on a per capita basis for each municipality, Whitehall was in the lower third in terms of tax rates and expenditures. Now, they used 2008 numbers for that, so I mean I’m sure the numbers have changed since then. But the reality of the situation is that this municipality does things that other municipalities don’t for that tax rate. We have a pool. We have a well-funded library—a very good library, too, (that) wins awards and is constantly getting notoriety around the state, not just locally. We’ve got the pool up there. A lot of municipalities don’t have that. Also, the municipal government’s been very involved with the fire department, which a lot of municipalities aren’t. They’re (others are) hands-off (and) no resources for the fire department whatsoever. A lot of municipalities charge collection fees for trash. This borough doesn’t. A lot of municipalities don’t bother paving the streets, or if they do, it’s only because the streets have deteriorated so bad that they have to. This borough has never operated that way. In addition to that, insofar as businesses, even though we don’t have a big business community here, because the tax rates aren’t that bad, comparatively, you’re not in a situation where businesses feel compelled to vote with their feet. People that are here are stable. The businesses that are here, once you get established here, it’s a nice community to have a business in because of the fact that you can have a stable client base, and that’s one of the nice things about being here.
- BWP: What qualifies each of you to be a Whitehall council member?
RM: I am a CPA, and I work with a lot of different types of businesses from startup to even SEC (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) clients. And my years of experience within public accounting, private industry within Westinghouse and then banking at Mellon Bank and so forth (qualify me). What I bring to the table is that business common-sense, the practicality of “We spend what we have and not go into debt.” In fact, during our (council’s) tenure here in Whitehall, with our planning and so forth and our long-range forecasting, we got out of debt in 2008 and have been that way ever since and have a nice fund balance to maintain it. So, we use some good business approaches and so forth. That’s what I bring to the table and I’ve helped instill in the other council members. The qualifications: experience caring for the community—it’s a way of giving back—and the expertise that I bring to the table—those things. I first ran in (19)89 and ’90. I didn’t get elected, didn’t win my first election until ’92 and took office in ’93.
JD: In my 40 years in working in banking, I have always worked in a fiduciary capacity—working with other people’s money. Many times, in many positions that I’ve had, I’ve managed budget targets, put departments together. And learning what it was like to work with other people’s money in that capacity of making sure that you’re doing the right thing (qualifies me). I’m certainly against higher taxes and wasteful spending, but also, I think it’s important that I—and one of the positions that I’ve had in the past—look at better ways to do things. And I think that there’s always a better way to do something, or at least, take a look at it. As long as you gather all of the pertinent information that you need, you can make a right decision. In working for a bank and making loans, one of the things you’ve always had to do was make sure you had the right information to make the correct decision, and I think that’s what I bring to the table for the council position—and also a fresh perspective in looking at this as opposed to this and someone who has been on the council for quite a long time. I’m not saying that there’s anybody there (on the Whitehall Council) that doesn’t care, but I think that I can bring a new set of eyes to some issues that are going to be hitting all governments, which is increased spending and reduced income.
CM: First off, I’ve spent years working not just with people but trying to help people, because it’s really what we do at AAA. But in addition to that, with the education background that I have and the fact that a lot of the stuff that I deal with at work is also with small business owners, I understand what it takes for any small business owner to make a buck. My sister’s owned two of her own businesses. My dad owned his own business. My best friend’s owned three businesses. I’ve been involved in the nitty-gritty in all of those. In addition to that, having grown up in the city and now living out here, I bring a different perspective to it, going to high school at Peabody at the time whenever a large amount of government money was being stuck into East Liberty to try and make it better and watching what happened that actually made things a lot worse. I mean they managed to chase out virtually every profitable business that was down there in less than five years. I never want to see a government do that again. Being someplace where the cops show up in time to write a report as opposed to in time to actually do something, like they do out here (in Whitehall)—just a different perspective. And having seen things that are screwed up, and I want to make sure that this place (is not). And that’s like what Bob (McKown) said, it’s a desire to be here to give back to the community. A lot of times, you see people running for office in other places, and they’re doing it because they have a particular axe to grind. I think you’ve noticed from all three of us here, we’re not doing it for that reason. It isn’t that we want to do this because (we’re excited) for something (in particular). You get the idea. Realistically, we’re not doing this because we have this agenda: this, this and this. It’s more of a situation of giving back to the community. It really is.
- BWP: What made each of you want to run for a spot on the Whitehall Council?
RM: I was always brought up to give back. When I was younger, I was involved in church, but in my more of adult life, I haven’t been able to commit to that like I was when I was younger. So, I found another means of giving back, and that’s through my community involvement. I’m not only involved with (Whitehall) Council and bringing my expertise to the table to help the borough with its finances and the projects that we’ve undertaken and the—I’d say—revitalization with us rebuilding the parks over the years, our sewer system issues that we’re dealing with now and even the fire company’s issues with the equipment, and now, even the new building. I get satisfaction from it, because in my everyday business, that’s what I’m doing: helping people out, giving them a better understanding of their financial situation, helping them to a better understanding of their tax situation. And by doing that, then, they can focus on what they’re good at, which is their business. So, it’s the personal satisfaction I get by seeing what a nice community this is and helping to maintain and keep it that way. Basically, those are the reasons. And by doing so, I’m assuring it, too, that it has been and it will continue to be great place to—I raised my daughters here and my family, and that’s really important to me, as well.
JD: I go back to my experience in banking. I have worked in my past with the state housing finance agency, the state treasurer’s office, the Allegheny County Residential Finance Authority and the City of Pittsburgh in developing products and programs for them to use to help residents of the state, city and the county. I think that the perspective that I bring at this time—this critical time—when, everyday, we hear about limited funds (makes me want to be a councilman). The issues are: Can we work it better, or do we have to raise taxes? I don’t want to do that (raise taxes). I want to be able to work something better or decrease taxes if we can to work within our budgets in this terrible time of escalating prices. I think I bring that expertise to the board, the council. I now have time in my life to do that. Before, I was working my full-time job. Now, I’m on a consulting basis, so I have more time to devote to that (council work) that I didn’t have before.
CM: It goes back to really having the want to give back to the community. I’ve served on the board of the Friends of the Whitehall Public Library for 12 years, somewhere around there. I’m on my second term as Treasurer down there. I’ve worked with Kelly (Joyce) on the Rec(reation) Board on projects. I’ve worked on other projects that have touched on that over the years. It’s more a situation of wanting to give back because it’s such a nice community. Every single one of us lives here, and we certainly want to make sure that this place is the best it can be.
- BWP: What would each of you make your No. 1 priority as a Whitehall council member?
RM: We just approved the (new) fire station project. We’ve been working on that for three or four years. That’s very important to the community, to keep us moving forward and to meet the needs of the future. As these other guys (DeGrazia and Mooney) have brought up, our real challenges are going to be ahead of us: maintaining this status of (having) the level of quality that we’ve become accustomed to here. It’s getting to a point where our resources, our money is drying up. Expenses are starting to exceed revenues, which is causing us to go into our fund balance, and it’s going to get to a point in another couple more years whether we’re going to be faced with a challenge of cutting services or figuring out, as Jim (DeGrazia) pointed out, better ways to do things, or there’s going to be some tax increases. Otherwise, we’re going to have to really deal with this, just like anybody else would with their home budget. I mean, statistically, right now, 5.5 mills on an average of about $200,000 assessed value of the home, that’s about $1,110 a year—less than $100 a month for all these great services: police, fire, public works, recreation, library, all those services, including garbage pickup. Garbage pickup is over 1 million dollars now and starting to take a big chunk out of our budget. So, those are the factors that we’re going to be forced to deal with moving forward. The infrastructure of the community is well in place—the neighborhood parks, the pool, the library, even the fire department and the police and public works. All of them are well established. They are good, hard-working people that are there. We want to try to maintain that, and that’s going to be the challenge going forward: to maintain those top-quality services.
JD: My No. 1 priority would be to make sure that we will not be increasing taxes. I would be looking for better ways to do our current services and better ways of utilizing the borough’s funding to make sure that we are holding the line on taxes. That’s really, kind of, what it is. I don’t want to see taxes going up. I want to see us utilize the funds that we have more efficiently than they are, than they have to be if we’re not going to be increasing taxes. That would be my No. 1 priority.
CM: Well, obviously, taking a look at everything, given the situation that Bob (McKown) had alluded to about the fact that the revenues have basically flat-lined (while) the expenses keep going up, how can we do things to maintain—or as close as possible to maintain—the services that we do provide? He (McKown) just said (that it costs) a million dollars just to pick up the trash. (Whitehall’s road paving budget) this year is $750,000. Those costs have gone way up. The cost of rock salt has gone way up. It doesn’t seem that the people in the community here would want to be in a situation where we started substantially, drastically cutting services to try and make ends meet, but having said that, you still have to look at ways to improve efficiencies where you can. And I certainly want to look at that. There’s other paving methods that other municipalities—the state, the county, et cetera—are using. I’d like to look into those to try to get our costs down on that. Rock salt costs what it costs. When the road crew has to go out and put it down, they have to put it down. Is there a cheaper way to do it? I don’t know; these guys are pretty good. That’s one of those things. Every politician talks about waste, fraud and abuse. I ain’t seen too much of that here.
RM: There isn’t.
CM: You get the idea. There might be better ways to do things. That’s what we’ll look into to try to maintain the level of services as much as we can. Nobody wants to see tax increases, but none of this stuff’s free.
- BWP: What is the Whitehall Council currently doing that you would like it to continue to do or to stop doing? And why?
CM: I guess I’ll take the lead on this one. As someone who has been at the council meetings for over a decade, one of the great things about this borough, and it really is, is that, in all the years that I have been up here, there are not any large factional disputes about anything. Each council member comes up to it with their own perspective. And there’s disagreements. Bob (McKown)’s been in some heated discussions. I’ve been there for a few, but at the end of the day, everybody is interested in making this a better community, and everybody is interested in cooperating. It’s not a situation where people walk away from a particular vote and swear that they’re always going to vote against that particular person. I’ve never seen factional votes on council, and I hope it never happens because I’ve seen what happens in other municipalities when it goes on. And it really doesn’t benefit the residents.
RM: It’s not healthy. And Chris (Mooney) points out a good thing: You can’t tell who’s a D(emocrat) or an R(republican) sitting at (Whitehall’s) council. Also, what we do each year is we rotate the presidency, or the chair. There is a set pattern that we follow, so it’s not who has the most votes. And then, also each year, the committee chairs are rotated, too, unless you want the same committee a second year if you’re carrying on a project or something you might be working on. But, historically, those types of rotations are—I’d hate to say mandatory—but they’re kind of customary. And it suits us well to alleviate those issues that Chris (Mooney) was talking about with any inner-fighting, anything between party lines. Bottom line is we all live in Whitehall(, and) we all want to make sure Whitehall continues to be a great place. And that’s the way everybody on council approaches it.
JD: Everybody seems to work together for the betterment of the community. That’s basically what I see.
- BWP: What new topics would you like the Whitehall Council to explore? And why?
CM: I don’t know if there’s too much. Everybody talks about wanting to do more, and I don’t know if we necessarily need to do more as a council or as a government. What we need to figure out and need to work on is trying to get the costs under control because that’s really the biggest challenge. Fortunately, we’re not in a situation where we have this massive underfunding of a pension plan like the city does, where we have (the city has) declining revenues. That’s not the situation. They’re flat-lining (in Whitehall); they’re not declining. Still, that’s the priority: How do you do what we’re doing more effectively? More cost-effectively? Because that’s sort of the challenge.
JD: That’s going to be the challenge going forward. If the federal government has it, if the state government has it—every government has an issue right now of flat revenues and how you’re going to more efficiently utilize the resources that you have. Resources mean money.
RM: They (Mooney and DeGrazia) are right on track. I’ll give you a “for instance.” In 2009, we get our preliminary numbers for our health care costs. Well, in 2010, our health care costs went up a whopping 60 percent … The annual costs for the borough’s health care was around $500,000—round numbers—in 2009. In 2010, it was $800,000. Where do you come up with $300,000? You just don’t go and print the money. You can’t instantly raise taxes. And that’s why you have to have good financial management, and that’s why we have a fund balance. Fund balance is money in the savings account. That’s what it is. So, that was the main issue. Then, another big issue, like Chris (Mooney) brought up, was the pensions. Now, our actuarials came back, and I brought up the issue of how they were doing their calculations and what they were basing upon, and I sent them back to the drawing board. And I insisted, with the rest of council, and to help educate everybody else, that it is necessary for us to stay current on our pension fundings. If you do not, those amounts that you owe will grow by leaps and bounds, exponentially actually, and then, you’ll never be able to get caught up. So, because of that, we had to put an extra $400,000 in. No. 1 was because the market tanked in (20)08 and ’09. And they were using ’07 numbers before the market tanked, so we made them use ’09 numbers. So, we brought that up to par. We made sure our pensions were fully funded. Then, in the newsletter that came out (in May), (Whitehall’s Borough Manager) Jim Leventry talked about that. And with the market rebounding, that’ll be a lesser hit. But the last two years, we’ve had to use $700,000 out of our fund balance. Those are the two major reasons why … And it’s important to understand that, because if we don’t find better ways of doing things, it’s going to come down to either cutting services or raising taxes. And I think that we do a pretty good job of efficiency, looking at those detail things. But those are the issues that we’re going to be faced with: We have a limited amount of dollars coming in, and where are we going to get the biggest bang for our buck?
CM: One of the things that Bob (McKown) alluded to is what the actuaries were doing. Didn’t you (McKown) tell me that they were using an unrealistic … ?
RM: Yeah, they used an investment-return factor of 8 percent.
CM: Yeah, which is insane. And they’re not the only ones that have done it.
JD: Everybody always used to use 8 percent.
CM: Yeah, and you know something: When I’ve done my own calculations, for my own retirement, for my wife’s retirement and for friends and family, I’ve said to them, “Throw that 8-percent number out the window,” because it’s bull. If you’re doing 3-to-4-percent above inflation, that’s where you’re going to be.
RM: That’s a good return.
CM: When everything’s said and done, over the long run, that’s where you’re going to be. That’s the number you need to look at, because if you look at that 8 percent, you think to yourself, “Oh, geez, in a decade, I’ll have twice as much money.” It doesn’t work out that way.
RM: You’re right, Chris (Mooney); we did make them (the borough’s actuaries) go back and use more conservative assumptions, and then also more current investment values of 2009 instead of 2007.
- BWP: Given the economic climate, is an increase in property taxes something that you would consider? Would you support an increase?
RM: … Historically, Whitehall has always been able to keep the real estate tax dollars within a relatively lower level. Now, after 9/11 was the first time that we raised taxes significantly in 20 years—in 2001 or ’02. That’s because our insurance costs went through the roof for everything. And it forced us to raise taxes, so what we did was we sat down, we looked at our budgets and some long-range planning, working with the fire department—that’s something else that we were instrumental in bringing online was working in conjunction with these groups that support the community and putting a plan together of saving money to buy equipment and so forth. But anyhow, back to my original point, we looked at those long-range things. Plus, when we were going to pay off all of our debt and so forth, we adjusted taxes at the time, and we got raked over the coals with it because come people’s methodology or thought process (was), “Oh, you should do it gradually.” Well, we didn’t. We went from 2.5 mills to 5.5 mills. But you also have to understand that, during that time period, that’s when the county changed the (real estate) assessments from a quarter of the market value to a full market value. So there was a switch in there. And first, when we were looking at 5.5 mills, we were on the high side. But now, if you look at the county listing, Whitehall again is in the lower third. And we haven’t raised taxes since, like I said, 2001 or 2002. So, we’re going to get another 15 years or so before we have to look at it again because of good financial planning and so forth.
CM: What Bob (McKown) says about our millage rate being in the lower third, it isn’t just that; it is including the wage tax. That (aforementioned) study from the Allegheny Institute included both wage and property tax.
- BWP: What are your feelings on Marcellus Shale drilling in Whitehall? Allowing? Banning? Restricting? And why?
RM: That’s such a hot topic right now … Part of our job is to educate the public. If we didn’t pass an ordinance (restricting Marcellus Shale drilling zones), we as a community would be at greater risk because, then, these people (Marcellus Shale drillers) could come in and set up shop. By establishing an ordinance that regulates it to the extent that we’re allowed to regulate it under state law, (that) helps us protect the residents of the community. I really think—and the Mayor (James F. Nowalk) has really taken this on as a champion project for him—it’s an issue that needs to be addressed at the state level. And (Gov. Tom) Corbett has pushed it aside, even for the tax purposes, but it is something that needs to be addressed at that level because our hands are tied.
CM: They are looking at title regulations, but they’re shoving the tax end of it off to the side for right now.
RM: But the regulations, even so, it’s at a point where, if we didn’t do anything, we’re in a greater exposure here than what we did do, which is try to contain it, confine it and regulate it. And I think that’s the first step. Personally, because I know some people that are in this business and industry and elsewhere—and (fellow Councilman) Glenn Nagy coins it so well: There’s too much other low-hanging fruit out there before they (drillers) would ever really come to think about doing it in Whitehall. (Those other options) would have to be exhausted first because of the simplicity of getting to their physical site out in the country … And they have the infrastructure there to do it, the people to do it that are willing to do it. Not in a bedroom community such as Whitehall would you try to stick one of those things (natural gas wells), because they’re larger than a normal oil well. They have to be on a piece of property of 4-to-10 acres. They’re not just a plot. A normal, small oil well can be just a plot about the size of this room (Whitehall Borough conference room). These things (natural gas wells) are huge, massive structures. The tower is 3-to-4 times taller (than an oil well), the whole nine yards. So, do I really think that we’ll ever see them here? I don’t want to say never, because you don’t know. But, in realistic terms, I don’t think that you will. I think there’s too much other lower fruit that they could get to, and cost-wise, it’s easier for them to get to that. Do I want to see it here in the borough? Absolutely not. This is a bedroom community. It doesn’t belong here. It belongs in a country setting where there’s space and opportunity for them to do their business the way that it needs to be done. And in a safe environment, too. That’s the other thing: Technology’s come a long way. If these guys abide by the rules and regulations … that’s what they need to do.
CM: I’ll add to that. One of the things that I noticed, whenever we (borough council) did have the one (meeting on the subject) here and we had to move out of council chambers, was how much misinformation was actually out there about Marcellus Shale drilling and what’s involved in it.
RM: Like I said, you have to be an educator for the people, sometimes.
CM: People think they (drillers) put explosives under the property to do the fracking (hydraulic fracturing). That’s not what they do. They actually push what is primarily water and sand into that well at very high pressure, and that is what causes the rock to fracture so they can access the gas that’s locked in there. My biggest concern is (if) you have a well blow out, and that normally happens whenever they’ve pressurized that well to the maximum amount and start relieving the pressure. That’s the biggest potential problems that you have with Marcellus Shale drilling. The other thing is, the way that they do it, where they go down almost a mile, and then, they literally turn the drill bit and go out almost a mile, (that) makes it almost impossible in a community like this to do that drilling, because every single property owner that you’re passing that bit underneath, legally right now, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is supposed to have a contract with you. And if you don’t have a contract with that person who owns that piece of property, and they discover it, now the drill operator or the drilling company can be held liable. For as many drill sites as there are around here, throughout the state, and in the western part of the state in particular, accidents are relatively rare, but when they do happen, it does have some real nasty consequences. But primarily, most of these operators do not want to see that happen. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for their reputation. It’s not good for, obviously, their operating profits. But for them to have to get property owners all along the way, for them to sign off, makes it virtually impossible for them to really drill around here in a cost-effective manner. So, as much as I’m in favor of seeing Marcellus Shale develop because we need more of our own (energy) resources, them doing it here is going to be extremely difficult.
JD: I’ve been on an oil well. I’ve been on an actually operating oil well. They are noisy. They are dirty. To have something like that—on the one I was on, they had a locomotive engine that was running the operation. Now, you know what: Where you going to put a locomotive engine in Whitehall? So, to Bob (McKown)’s point, it’s really for a rural site where it’s no noise issues. Filthy, dirty oil and water everywhere—it’s not for a residential community. Not at all. As much as I’d like to see the revenues that we could tax or something, yeah, but you know what?: It’s a mess. It’s a dirty, filthy operation, and noisy.
CM: It’s a hard, dangerous job, too. I mean those guys work on those rigs, and they earn that money. My kid actually happens to work for a company that you were (DeGrazia was) talking about—that locomotive engine for a generator. They don’t use that anymore; they use turbines. Nowadays, they actually use turbines to do it. They fuel them from natural gas that comes up with the oil. His company actually provides new generator solutions, and he’s the software rep.
- BWP: Should the Whitehall Council support the idea of an “overlay district” on Route 51?
RM: Oh, yes, absolutely. We’re all together in EDS (Economic Development South) and working for the development of the (Route 51) corridor here. And what that overlay is is just an even playing field for developers to come (into) … What brought this to light was there’s some seed money, grant money, available for that purpose (overlay district), and we needed to act quickly to approve it. All it is is some money to pay an individual to look at the rules on both sides (and) say, “Here’s what you have; here’s what we have. Where can we come to a compromise to build a flat playing field for a contractor coming in?” So, absolutely.
JD: It’s a sensible approach. It makes sense. Why not?
CM: We’re trying to attract businesses on that corridor, and it’s tough enough to do that with those very shallow lots. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a look at how deep those lots are, but in a lot of places, they are very shallow. It’s almost impossible to get a semi (tractor-trailer) in and out of there. And it’s a tough sell; it is. And we want people to come in and be able to look at a piece of property and say, “This size of property, this placement, fits our needs” and not have to worry about, “Well, wait a minute, how come this rule’s different here than it is here?” You want the businesses to be able to come in with the flexibility that they need to look at different sites and say, “This one’s the one I need; this one’s going to suit my purposes” and not have to worry about all the governmental red tape that can slow that process down, because we want to try to streamline it as much as possible to bring those companies in, to bring businesses in, to bring business owners in.
JD: To level the playing field.
- BWP: Can Whitehall improve the way that it involves its large refugee population with the borough community?
CM: I guess I’ll take that one, because I’ve been as much involved in it as anyone.
RM: We do (involve the borough’s refugee population).
CM: Yeah. Let’s put it this way: There’s always room for improvement. But the bottom line on the situation is this: We’ve worked with South Hills Interfaith Ministries (SHIM), tried to coordinate programs that they have (SHIM has) and consolidate them into the summer programs for the kids up in Prospect Park (Whitehall Place Apartments area). In addition to that, one of the initiatives that Linda Book on (Whitehall) Council had was the LEARN Bus (the Whitehall Public Library’s English as a Second Language Literacy Program), which my wife, when she was the president of the Friends (of the Library) actually found the funding to do it. We do that without tax dollars. We actually have the (Baldwin-Whitehall) School District helping us, where they provide the bus (and) they provide the driver. We’re paying a marginal cost for the fuel, for the driver to go over to Prospect Park, to pick up the refugee families, bring them up here to the library. They have access to the library on a night when we have activities for the kids. They have access to the computers up in the library. In addition to that, now, they’re going over in the summer because we didn’t originally do that (LEARN Bus trips) during the summer. But now, we’re doing that during the summer, so they can also come up here and access the pool. That has been ongoing for years. In fact, that particular LEARN Bus, Green Tree is now replicating that to try and do it with their library and with their refugee community. In addition to that, the (Whitehall) Police Department’s been involved. There’s always room for improvement, but we do a pretty good job with it. The biggest problem we have is, really, the landlords up there at Prospect Park, which is a separate issue.
RM: But really, we’ve been addressing that problem, and I hate to call it a problem. We’ve been adjusting our needs and our resources to meet their needs, working with the groups that have been brought in and the groups that have been bringing them in, the South Hills Interfaith Ministries ...
RM: ... Yes, all of those. So, we’ve been working with them since Day One to help them address the needs, because it works to everybody’s benefit. We’re constantly changing the models to work with the people and figure out where the needs might be and what they are today, what they might be tomorrow, and address them. What else can we do? Well, there’s a lot. You just continually work to solve the problems day in and day out and reallocate the resources to what needs to be fixed and what’s working well and what’s not.
CM: Bottom line is the borough itself is not spending a considerable amount of money to get this done.
RM: Through donations.
CM: We have donations. A lot of the stuff that we do is low-cost. It’s stuff that we’re already doing because we have the summer rec(reation) programs. What we’ve done is integrated those programs with what South Hills Interfaith Ministries is doing up at Prospect Park, up at the field up there—Wallace Field. Plus, on top of that, Highland Field because we get soccer up there now. So, I mean the stuff that we’re doing is low-cost solutions. This isn’t costing the borough a ton of money.
RM: And the other bottom line is, too, it works, because these people are becoming integrated into American society. When they first started coming here, they didn’t know how to turn on light switches, they didn’t know how to use bathrooms—some of them. And if you do the history, some of them were the “Lost Boys” who were just wandering in the desert, so coming here was a real shock for them. So, we’ve learned; they’ve learned. And they’ve become integrated and productive members of society. A lot of them have moved on, have gotten their training, have gotten their jobs. They’ve bought homes in the community, and they continue to contribute. So, it’s an important aspect to keep the whole thing going.