Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas has proposed eliminating commissioners’ aides and a state and federal lobbyist contract to reduce the county’s projected $10.6 million deficit for 2014.
But his two fellow commissioners, Republicans Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney, have rejected his proposal.
Commissioners passed a 2014 budget in December that uses $10 million of a $35 million surplus reserve to balance the budget, which is required by law.
“I believe in leadership by example,” said Mr. Kopas, a Democrat. “If we are serious about reforming county government and reducing the budget deficit, change needs to start with the commissioners.”
Mr. Kopas worked as an aide to former Commissioner Tom Balya before being appointed in 2010 and then elected to the post.
Mr. Kopas said eliminating the three commissioners’ aides positions and the lobbyist contract would save the county about $350,000 in salary and benefits yearly.
All three commissioners have said they are committed to reducing the county deficit, but the $10 million deficit for 2014 is higher than last year’s deficit of $6 million.
Mr. Anderson said Mr. Kopas’ proposal to cut the aides was “grandstanding” and counterproductive.
“This is serious times and issues,” the chairman said. "If we decapitate ourselves, we can’t go through the intellectual process we need to reduce the budget. We need all hands on deck, and need to go full steam ahead.
“If we’d do that with the aides, everything would have to come through the commissioners,” he said. "We have 2,000 employees, so that would bog everything down. We need good people so we can delegate to make things happen. We can’t afford that.”
Mr. Kopas said if commissioners are asking for budget cuts from its departments, commissioners should set the example by taking the first steps to reduce costs.
“Yes, it would be adding work for all three of us,” he said, “but it would also be an opportunity for us to work more directly with each other and our department heads and constituents, without hiding behind surrogates.”
Commissioners have two public meetings a month and agenda meetings two days beforehand, and meet together at other times as needed on issues.
“Some say there are too many absences by commissioners, too,” Mr. Kopas said. "We all like going to these ceremonial functions, like banquets and ribbon cuttings, and that’s part of our job. But the real job is much bigger than that. If we didn’t have aides, we’d have to miss some of these ceremonial functions.
“It’s about time we put our money where our mouths are on deficit reduction, and do something personal,” he said.
Mr. Kopas also wants the county to eliminate a $90,000 contract with a lobbying firm in Philadelphia that represents the county’s interests in Harrisburg and Washington. He said commissioners should take on the lobbying efforts themselves.
But Mr. Anderson said that idea would be counterproductive, as well.
“The majority of our money comes from state and federal government,” he said. “We’re competing for those funds, and we need someone down there. We have a $342 million budget, so $90,000 is a small number.
“Our lobbyists are there all the time,” he said. “We have a trip coming up to D.C. in a month, and the lobbyists get everything set up for us, they are our cheerleaders. And they give us a heads up on issues that might affect us. We also are going to Harrisburg in the near future, too."
Mr. Kopas said he wasn’t saying the firm is not doing a good job.
“It is a capable firm, but we could do the job,” he said. "If we are going to look at budget savings, we could do more ourselves.”
Mr. Kopas also called for an end to reimbursing commissioners for daily mileage. He does not submit mileage for reimbursement as a county expense.
“I consider the entire county as our office, so I think it is ridiculous to ask taxpayers to pay us to drive to our office,” he said.
Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Courtney get mileage reimbursements for work-related trips. County commissioners are paid $75,000 annually, and the chairman gets an additional $3,000.
Mr. Anderson said he is committed to reducing county expenses by streamlining how the county hires people and how they pay people, saying their move last month to hire an outside firm to run the human resources department was one example.
Mr. Kopas called a hiring freeze that his fellow commissioners announced at the beginning of the year “an empty hiring freeze, I knew it was phony, it was just words.
“Grandstanding, which they called my proposal, is when you say you’re going to do something like have a hiring freeze, and then you don’t do it,” he said.
“There’s no magic solution to cutting spending, but a lot of pieces, and this proposal would be an important first piece,” he said.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.