Category: County Executive

Have questions about the $5 vehicle registration fee?

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the extra $5 that Erie County residents will pay on their state vehicle registration. Here is some more information:

What is the $5 fee?

In December 2017, Erie County passed an ordinance that adds a $5 fee to the annual state cost of vehicle registration. While the regular vehicle registration money goes to PennDOT, all money raised by the fee will be returned to Erie County to be spent on local transportation projects.

Why did Erie County enact the fee?

Erie County had two incentives: First, the county will lose about $1.8 million in federal funding in 2020, which will reduce the county’s ability to repair our locally owned roads and bridges. In addition, PennDOT offered to give the county $2 million to be used for to repair structurally deficient locally owned bridges.

Do other counties do this?

Erie County is among 19 counties to enact the fee since the state’s Act 89 legislation, passed in 2013, made it possible to do so starting in 2015.

Who is exempt from paying the fee?

The fee applies to passenger vehicles, which includes RVs and trailers. Boats and ATVs are not part of this, as they are not registered through PennDOT. (Boats are registered through the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, and ATVs and snowmobiles are registered through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.) The fee is only for non-exempt vehicles – residents who currently do not have to pay for vehicle registration also do not have to pay the $5 fee. The list of those exempt from paying vehicle registration is spelled out in Chapters 13 and 19 of the state Vehicle Code.

What happens to the money?

The $5 fee is expected to generate about $1.2 million each year, and every cent of that goes back to Erie County. It must be used for local transportation projects.

Who decides how it will be spent?

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is the governing transportation body of the county, will decide which local transportation projects will receive funding. Erie County oversees the MPO, but the group consists of officials from municipalities across the county, as well as representatives from the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority, the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Erie Regional Airport Authority and PennDOT. For a current list of members, click here.

What is the first priority?

Structurally deficient locally owned bridges top the to-do list. In Erie County, roads and bridges are owned by either the state or by local municipalities. Bridge inspections show that about 36 percent of locally owned – that is, those owned by municipalities – are structurally deficient, and five are closed. By comparison, only 4 percent of the state-owned bridges are structurally deficient.

How will the registration fee help?

Locally owned bridges are costly for municipalities to maintain, repair and replace, so their conditions have deteriorated. The revenue for this fee will address that by giving our local cities, boroughs and townships financial support. If not for this $5 fee, municipalities would have to resort to raising property taxes (which would place the burden of repairing roads on property owners, rather than on everyone who uses the roads) or not being able to repair these aging, deteriorating bridges.

Exploring Erie County: Our day in Fairview

This year, I’m launching a new initiative, called Exploring Erie County. Each month, I’ll spend a day in a different Erie County municipality. First up was Fairview Township. Here are some highlights of the day’s adventures:

 Main Street Cakery Café

Our first stop in Fairview Township was at the Main Street Cakery Café, which opened on Route 20 a little less than five years ago. The bakery and café, which serves a full breakfast and lunch menu, was doing a steady business even around mid-morning. Inside, the place is cozy and welcoming, with an industrial chic feel that still feels homey. It was a perfect place to meet with Erie County Councilwoman Carol Loll, a fantastic Fairview ambassador, and Jim Cardman, Fairview Township’s Planning and Zoning Administrator.

Carol represents Council’s sprawling 7th District, which includes Fairview Township and points west, covering much of western Erie County.

Carol and Jim talked about the consolidation of Fairview Township and the former Fairview Borough, a merger that took place 20 years ago this year. Both were actively involved in the process – Jim had his current position, and Carol was on Fairview Borough Council. They recounted the challenges that led to the decision to merge, and also the benefits that the unified municipality has enjoyed since the successful consolidation.

Our wide-ranging conversation also covered Fairview’s hopes for the newly formed Erie County Land Bank, zoning in the township, and the role of the Erie County Planning Department.

Fueled by a great intro conversation to Fairview – and carrying the dozen cookies we bought to bring back to the courthouse – we headed to our next stop: Lignitech.

 

Lignitech

Lignitech might be a small company, but it has certainly left its mark on our community.

The business, located on Middle Road, is a commercial wood shop that was founded in 1985. Lignitech’s custom cabinetry and millwork can be seen on projects around Erie County, including at grocery stores, banks, healthcare facilities, universities and the county’s largest employers – and even at Blasco Library.

Walking around the shop floor, owner Vlado Benden pointed out pieces in progress, and what they would ultimately become: lockers for a fitness center, panels for a high-tech lab at a local college, display cases for collectible knives.

The company currently has eight employees but plans to add one to two more to accommodate large projects coming their way, including the new Erie Insurance building currently under construction in downtown Erie.

“It’s going to be seven floors, so that’s a lot of millwork,” Vlado said.

Finding qualified employees can be a challenge, he said. They need people who have at least some raw skills, such as reading a tape measure, as well as a strong work ethic.

Both Vlado and Steven Hannah, Lignitech’s vice president, agreed that they see a need for the technical training that a community college could provide – one that isn’t necessarily being met by existing programs.

Steven is himself a product of the Erie County Technical School, which was a natural fit for him since his family was in construction. He started at Lignitech in 2000, eventually becoming a partner in the company.

Vlado took a slightly different path. After moving to Los Angeles to become an actor, he got into building sets and scenery to support himself. He and his wife eventually moved to Erie County to be closer to family, and he started working at Lignitech in 1994.

Over the years, the pair have been able to mold the company into a solid business – introducing new equipment, such as the CNC routers that allowed them to work more safely and efficiently; overcoming challenges, like the cash-flow issues that are so common to any small business; and, above all, maintaining the reputation for quality custom work.

“Over the years, we’ve gotten the reputation of being able to do the challenging stuff,” Vlado said.

 

Lincoln Community Center Library

After Lignitech, we headed east on West Lake Road to the Lincoln Community Center Library, one of the five Erie County Public Library branches.

The top-notch library staff there had a table waiting for us, ready for my “Q&A with the County Executive” – an informal meet-and-greet with library patrons.

I plan to hold these Q&A sessions monthly at each town I visit. I’ve always thought it important for elected officials to be accessible to the public, and this gives me an opportunity to make myself available to any residents who have questions, concerns or complaints. And the public library, to me, is the perfect location – after all, libraries welcome people from all walks of life.

I saw that first-hand at the Lincoln Community Center Library.

I spoke with a home-schooled teen whose mom brought her in for a conversation about civics and local government. I spoke with a woman who was concerned about cuts to mental healthcare, to retired folks coming in for weekend reading materials and to younger people using the computers to look for a job.

During the brief downtimes, I got to look around the inviting library space. In the children’s section, cushy chairs that look like giant storybooks welcome visitors to sit and read, and Lego creations on display showcase young imaginations. For adults, stacks of books provide collections, and a bank of computers provides connections. And for the overall community, a bright, spacious meeting space offers opportunities to gather.

All in all, it was a nice place to spend the lunch hour and a perfect spot to meet members of the community.

We headed back to the car, and pulled out that handy Cakery bag from the backseat – we hadn’t scheduled time for lunch, and the cookies provided fuel for our next stop. (I guess that just meant fewer goodies for the staff back at the courthouse!)

 

Fairview supervisors work session

When we arrived at the Fairview Township building, I found I got a two-for-one deal – or a six-for-three deal. Not only was I able to meet with the Fairview supervisors, but the Girard Township supervisors were at the meeting as well.

Top of mind for the Fairview supervisors was a concern about stormwater runoff. The county owns property in the area along Route 20 that has recurring problems with flooding. Not only does the stormwater cause problems in Fairview Township, the drainage system backs up and causes flooding problems in Girard Township – and even Girard Borough, the supervisors told me. We strategized about potential solutions, including collaborative efforts.

The supervisors also detailed for me a plan under consideration that would revamp a stretch of Route 20 in Fairview into a more welcoming downtown-type area. The sketches I saw were appealing, and held a lot of promise for place-making in the township.

We also discussed the new $5 fee on vehicle registrations in Erie County. I emphasized that every dollar of that fee – which is expected to bring in $1.2 million – will stay right here in the county, and the state will match up to $2 million. The funds will help municipalities, like Fairview and Girard, pay for transportation-related projects. First up: repair structurally deficient bridges.

That led to discussion of another new fee – the addition of $14.25 to the recording of deeds and mortgages that is expected to add $200,000 annually to fight blight.

I found it to be a productive work session. Though there was no action taken, it is good for me to be able to hear first-hand about the concerns and challenges facing our municipalities directly from the local elected officials.

 

Pleasant Ridge Manor

Our last stop was to Pleasant Ridge Manor, the county-run skilled-nursing facility on Route 20.

I’m always happy to visit the manor, even just for the chance to see the dedicated and skilled staff. I’ve often said that the employees at Pleasant Ridge are second to none, and that was clear to me once again during my visit.

I was there for a special occasion: Bingo. About 50 or so residents had gathered for their regular Bingo game, and I had the privilege of being their caller. Well, it was a privilege for me, but the residents might have preferred to have a more experienced person calling out the numbers. There were several times that the residents offered some vocal feedback on my calling technique.

After spending some time with the residents, it was time to head back to the courthouse. On our way back to Erie, we took a little jaunt along Route 20 to scope out the stormwater situation. With the light rain that had been falling, the fields and ditches were already saturated. I’m glad the township supervisors brought the matter to my attention – it was one of many things I learned during my day exploring Fairview.

 

Fairview fun fact:

Fairview Evergreen Nurseries, founded in 1911, is today one of the largest private landowners in Erie County.

State of the County 2018

As I travel around Erie County, I see unmistakable signs of progress. What I see reinforces my conviction that the state of Erie County is strong – and growing stronger.

So as I speak about the state of Erie County, it is important to consider not just where we are, but also where we have been and where we are going.

When it comes to where we have been, I can’t help but think about Erie’s bayfront 20 years ago.

Some of you might remember the debate that was raging in the mid-1990s about the new location of the Erie County Public Library.

Blasco Library was being built on a bayfront that was unsightly and unwelcoming. Many citizens called the site a disastrous choice.

But local leaders had a vision – a vision for what the waterfront could and should be.

Ultimately, Blasco Library became a change agent for the bayfront, an anchor that sparked the transformation that soon followed.

Fast-forward to today. Erie’s bayfront is a welcoming space for residents and visitors alike, and it is recognized as an essential component in a broader, region-wide revitalization.

That brings us to where we are now.

As a county, we finally are sharing one vision and speaking with one voice.

We have come together to create and implement comprehensive plans for our region, our communities, and our neighborhoods.

Thanks to those plans, our urban core is undergoing a transformation.

Local partners have come together to create the Erie Innovation District, a hub for the emerging tech industry.

Businesses and private organizations have pledged more than $21 million to create the Erie Downtown Development Corporation.

And we are seeing evidence of more than half a billion dollars in new construction projects.

The City of Erie, guided by the Erie Refocused comprehensive plan, is forging a new future.

This revitalization, sparked by Emerge 2040, is also occurring in surrounding communities – Millcreek and Summit, Edinboro and Albion.

I can say with confidence that this regional momentum is shaping our future and determining where we are going.

Through collaboration and innovation, we are rebuilding Erie County. And in county government, we are championing change that promises to revitalize every community in every corner of our county.

To guide us in that process, we rely on the Emerge 2040 plan – a blueprint established by the input of thousands of residents, like you, who spoke up and identified the most pressing needs.

County government is working to do our part to fulfill the vision that you, the citizens, set forth.

The Erie County Planning Department has been at the forefront of the development of plans that are leading our municipalities into that future.

The Erie County Department of Human Services is working to aid our most vulnerable citizens, including finding innovative strategies to combat the opioid epidemic.

The Erie County Department of Public Safety has improved communications countywide, helping first responders keep all residents and visitors safe.

The Erie County Department of Health has been a community leader in supporting whole-body health for our entire community – including through a collaboration to bring the Blue Zones Project here.

And the Erie County Public Library – the epicenter of debate 20 years ago – remains a force for change in our community, most recently with the addition of the Idea Lab.

Just like the brick-and-mortar Blasco changed the bayfront landscape two decades ago, the Idea Lab promises to help change our economy. As a resource for all citizens, it serves as an entry point to the innovation that is taking root in our community.

That entrepreneurial spirit is essential to our economic future, playing an equal role with our efforts to shore up our industries and train our workers. In these things, too, Erie County has been a leader.

We have set young people onto career paths with the Summer Jobs and More program.

We have partnered with other agencies to create Up For the Job – a unified, one-stop shop for businesses looking for a great place to locate.

And we have answered the call of our employers by supporting a proposed Erie County Community College.

Let’s be honest – some of these initiatives have ushered in public debate, just as the Blasco Library did two decades ago.

Now, as then, we must remain committed to a vision for a more vibrant community, and we must follow the Emerge 2040 blueprint that will help us get there.

We also must guard against forces within ourselves that could threaten progress.

Will we be paralyzed by indecision or fear of the unknown, or will we step forward and embrace this vision for our future?

Will we be mired in the missteps of the past, or will we allow our community – our county – to emerge into the thriving place we imagined?

Will we continue to operate in individual siloes, separated from our neighbors? Or will we unite in common purpose to build a better Erie County?

These decisions are up to each one of us.

We have seen where we’ve been.

We know where we are.

And we have envisioned what we want to become – a place that we are proud to call home, and a place that offers a vibrant future for our children and grandchildren.

Let us come together to realize that goal. Let us not be afraid to dream big – and to demand the best for our community.

It is only together – as committed partners, as engaged citizens, as neighbors and friends – that we can truly move Erie County forward.

 

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