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GLSD school board OKs increased tax collector compensation

The Greater Latrobe School Board at its regular meeting Tuesday approved increasing the commissions paid to elected tax collectors in Unity Township and Youngstown Borough beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

The commission increases for the elected tax collectors in both municipalities cover a four-year term and range from 2.5% to 2.53% per year for the Unity Township position and 2.81% to 3.22% for Youngstown. With the increased commission rates, the Unity Township tax collector would be compensated between $69,638 (2022-23) and $75,038 (2025-26) per year over the four-year term, while the Youngstown tax collector would be compensated from $4,385 (2022-23) to $4,805 (2025-26).

The resolution does not include changes to the compensation level for the tax collector covering the City of Latrobe, as that position is appointed by Latrobe City Council rather than elected and the school district does not set the compensation level for the position.

Greater Latrobe Business Administrator Dan Watson in his recommendation to the school board noted the elected tax collectors’ workloads have increased over the past several years because of new requirements, including a state law requiring school districts to allow for real estate taxes to be paid on an installment basis and the inception of Homestead and Farmstead exclusions for residential properties.

Watson noted the compensation level for Unity Township’s elected tax collector is comparable to a Pennsylvania Economy League Central Division study of 81 school districts that found the average cost to collect real estate taxes was 0.24% of collections. GLSD currently compensates the elected tax collector for Unity Township at 0.28% of collections. For Youngstown Borough, by far the district’s smallest tax collection area, Watson noted, a compensation package based on state or countywide averages would make it difficult to fill the position.

The tax collectors for Unity Township and Youngstown Borough combined to collect $23,437,532 in real estate taxes for the district for the 2019-20 school year, according to Watson’s recommendation to the board, and were compensated $70,003 (0.30% of collections) to do so. The commission increases approved Tuesday by the board would keep compensation rates at the same percentage of collections over the next four years, assuming “a modest increase in real estate tax collection amounts,” over that term, Watson noted.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, superintendent Dr. Georgia Teppert told the school board that this week marks the second week the district’s secondary students have been back in the brick-and-mortar educational setting and the fourth such week for elementary students.

“We are elated to have our students back and in the buildings receiving face-to-face instruction and also the ability to interact with their teachers, staff members and peers,” Teppert said. “We are thrilled that our county’s incidence and percent-positivity rate for COVID has declined and Westmoreland County has transitioned from the substantial transmission rate to a moderate transmission rate for COVID-19 for the past two consecutive weeks.”

Teppert noted that under the moderate transmission rate category, school districts are no longer bound to the attestation order requiring schools to follow a 14-day rolling cycle for identification of COVID-19 cases and the closure of schools. She said positive cases will still be listed on the dashboard on the district’s website, and decisions to close classrooms or school buildings because of positive cases “will be made according to various factors relating to transmission, the number of positive cases or staffing shortages.”

Staff members and bus drivers who received their first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine previously will be getting their second doses of the vaccine over the next two Saturdays, Teppert added.

“In order to be proactive, we want to respond to staff and bus drivers who may have adverse side-effects after receiving the second dose of the Moderna vaccine,” Teppert said. “Therefore, we will implement remote instructional days following the vaccination clinics.”

All of the district’s school buildings will participate in full remote learning on the Mondays following those vaccination clinics, Teppert said — Feb. 22 and March 1 — to provide staff and bus drivers an additional 24 hours to recover from any adverse reactions to the vaccinations.

In other business, the school board approved:

  • A services agreement with Georgia-based ProCare Therapy to provide a full-time RN and a full-time one-to-one LPN for the 2020-21 school year at rates of $50 and $45 per hour, respectively;
  • Accepting the resignations of Hugh Moximchalk, custodian; Karen Owens, classroom assistant; Ron Owens, senior high technology education teacher; Carissa Sutter, custodian; and Thomas Turnbull Jr., baseball assistant;
  • Substitute teachers Janice Humes, elementary, special education; and Rebecca Milko, health and physical education;
  • Rachael Kollar, classroom assistant, $9.50 per hour; Shannon Ulishney, payroll manager, $43,500 annual salary; Karyn DiSanta, part-time secretary, $11.35 per hour; Rachel Menhorn, health room assistant, $15.75 per hour; Ryan Dillon and Brian Poklembo, full-time custodians, $13.08 per hour; and Cynthia Fowler and Michael Murphy, substitute custodians, $9.25 per hour;
  • Tax abatement approval for 32 E. Monroe St. in Latrobe;
  • Settling a tax assessment appeal of $432,000 for First Latrobe Company, which owns Unity Plaza;
  • Jacob Hannah, a 10th-grade student from Ligonier Valley, and Dylan Morris, a ninth-grade student from Greensburg Salem, as tuition students for 2021-22 school year;
  • Participation in the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit Joint Purchasing Consortium and authorization for a multi-purpose paper bid;
  • A right-of-way easement agreement granting the Derry Township supervisors temporary and permanent easement over the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center (EWCTC) and school property to construct, install, operate and maintain stormwater lines in regards to an upcoming stormwater bio-retention pond to control flooding;
  • The first reading of board policies regarding discrimination and Title IX sexual harassment affecting students, school security personnel and maintaining professional adult/student boundaries.

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No new COVID-19 deaths reported Tuesday in Westmoreland County

Westmoreland County’s coronavirus (COVID-19) death total remained steady again on Tuesday — the fourth day in the last five without an increase — while new daily cases remained in double-digits for an 13th straight day, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health data.

With 98 new coronavirus cases reported in Tuesday’s update to the state health department’s COVID-19 Dashboard, there have now been 25,993 coronavirus cases in the county since the start of the pandemic — 18,506 confirmed cases and 7,487 probable. So far, there have been 84,598 negative tests in the county.

There have been 6,660 coronavirus cases reported in Westmoreland County so far this year for an average of 141.70 reported per day in 2021.

The county is averaging 80.62 new cases per day so far in February.

Westmoreland County has added fewer than 200 new coronavirus cases each day since Jan. 14, and has had fewer than 175 new cases in all but one of those days. Since the start of February, the county has had fewer than 120 new cases each day, and has been below 100 new cases in 14 of the 16 days this month.

With no new coronavirus deaths reported for Westmoreland County on Tuesday, the county’s total since the start of the pandemic remained steady at 648 and the total in 2021 stayed at 225.

The virus-related death rate in Westmoreland County has slowed since December, which was the county’s worst month of the pandemic with 224 deaths reported (7.2 per day) and more than 10,000 new cases.

The first coronavirus deaths for Westmoreland County were reported April 5, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The county coroner’s office on Tuesday also showed no increase in its coronavirus death total since its last update at 11 p.m. Monday. Prior to that update, which saw the total increase to 408, the coroner’s count had remained steady at 404 since its previous update at 11 p.m. Feb. 8.

The coroner’s total includes coronavirus deaths that occur in Westmoreland County, regardless of the deceased person’s county of residence, while the state health department’s coronavirus death figures include any person considered a resident of Westmoreland County, regardless of where their death occurred.

The youngest person to die of COVID-19 in Westmoreland County was 36, according to the county coroner’s office, and the oldest was 109.

Statewide, coronavirus cases reached 899,237 as of Tuesday’s update to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard. That case total includes 777,177 confirmed cases in the state and 122,060 probable cases. So far, there have been 3,783,099 negative tests in the state.

Tuesday also marked the second time this month that the statewide total for coronavirus deaths increased by single-digits. As of Tuesday’s update, there had been 23,126 coronavirus deaths reported throughout the state, an increase of just seven compared to Monday’s total of 23,119. There were four COVID-19 deaths reported statewide on Feb. 8, according to the state health department.

Of the state’s coronavirus deaths, 12,023 (52%) are associated with long term care facilities, which have been virus hotspots throughout the pandemic. Data for long term care facilities on the state health department’s site was last updated at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there had been 65,555 coronavirus cases among residents and 12,695 cases among staff members at 1,556 long term care facilities throughout the state as of Tuesday’s update.

In Westmoreland County, according to the state health department, 50 long-term care facilities have accounted for 1,959 positive COVID-19 cases among residents, 271 cases among staff members and 256 coronavirus deaths.

Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is continuing, and residents and staff of long term care facilities are among those being vaccinated in the first phase of the state’s vaccine rollout. Westmoreland County recently added a COVID-19 vaccination information page to its county website, available at www.co.westmoreland.pa.us/2934/29523/Vaccine-Info.

Vaccine availability and logistical challenges have kept the state in Phase 1A of the state health department’s vaccine rollout plan.

Phase 1A focuses on getting vaccines to those most at-risk of illness, according to the state health department, such as health care workers and Pennsylvanians living in long-term care facilities, persons age 65 and older, and those age 16-64 with high-risk conditions.

Excela Health Chief Mecial Officer Dr. Carol Fox recommended those in Phase 1A still seeking to be vaccinated visit the health system’s website, www.excelahealth.org, frequently for updates regarding vaccine availability.

The state health department’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard indicates there have been 1,282,045 partial coronavirus vaccinations administered in the state, including 36,266 in Westmoreland County as of Tuesday’s update.

Currently, both COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use require two doses spread out several weeks apart. Those vaccines are produced by Pfizer and Moderna, Inc. A third — a single-dose vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson — is set to be reviewed for possible emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later this month.

As of Tuesday’s update, 421,640 people had received a second dose of their COVID-19 vaccination in Pennsylvania and were considered “full vaccinations” according to the vaccine dashboard. Of those full vaccinations, 12,113 were administered in Westmoreland County, according to the site.

COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the state declined Tuesday after increasing Monday compared to weekend figures. There were 2,356 coronavirus patients hospitalized statewide Tuesday, according to the state health department, down from 2,447 on Monday but still up slightly from the 2,348 coronavirus patients hospitalized statewide as of Sunday’s update.

Statewide, the moving 14-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a peak of 6,105.6 on Christmas Day and has steadily declined since. Of coronavirus patients hospitalized Monday throughout the state, 491 were in adult intensive care units and 271 were on ventilators.

In Westmoreland County, the coronavirus patient total decreased slightly, from 123 on Monday to 121 as of Tuesday’s update.

Of the COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the county Tuesday, four were in adult intensive care units and six were on ventilators, according to the state health department. Of the 96 ventilators available in Westmoreland County, according to state data, a total of 18 were in use by COVID and non-COVID patients as of Tuesday’s update.

According to state figures last updated at noon Tuesday, there were 31 adult ICU beds available at Westmoreland County hospitals — 34.4% of total adult ICU beds — 49 medical/surgical beds and 72 airborne isolation beds.

The state years ago established seven regional Health Care Coalitions, or HCCs, as part of its emergency preparedness plan. Westmoreland County is part of the HCC of Southwest PA, or the Southwest region, which also includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset and Washington counties.

The Southwest region saw its COVID-19 patient total drop below 500 over the weekend, with 460 coronavirus patients hospitalized throughout the region as of Sunday’s update. That total climbed to 475 on Monday and decreased to 468 as of Tuesday’s update. Of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the region Tuesday, 98 were on adult intensive care units and 42 were on ventilators.

Overall, 361 of the region’s 1,566 available ventilators were in use as of Tuesday’s update.

Kelly Tua Hammers seeking nod for Derry Township district judge

Derry attorney Kelly Tua Hammers plans on seeking to fill the seat of retiring Mark Bilik as district judge in Derry Township.

Hammers, 49, has served as Westmoreland County’s assistant district attorney since 1997.

A Democrat, Hammers plans on running in both the Democratic and Republican primaries on May 18.

“I am no stranger to the Derry community or to our proud history,” she said. “From my education, experience and high ethical standards as an attorney, I am also no stranger to working hard and making difficult decisions. I want to bring my public service to make a difference in my hometown where it matters to me.”

As assistant DA, Hammers has worked on special assignments including sexual assaults for adults and minors, civil asset forfeiture and juvenile cases.

A 1989 Derry Area High School graduate, Hammers received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Dickinson School of Law.

She is an instructor for the Municipal Police Academy at Westmoreland Community College in the areas of criminal law, civil law, search and seizure, and legal updates.

Hammers participates in Derry Area School District activities. She has been a guest speaker at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Westmoreland County Community College and various high schools on legal topics including law day, ethics, women in the law, search and seizure and human trafficking.

She is also a 24-year participant in the Adopt-A-School program at Valley High School on the 4th Amendment.

Hammers teaches religious education at partner parishes of Saint Rose and Saint John the Evangelist for grades 3-5. She also sings in the choir and serves as a flutist.

Hammers identifies as a conservative Democrat.

A third-generation Derry resident, Hammers lives in Derry Township with her husband, David, daughter Kyri, 17, and son Owen, 15.

Amy Altman McChesney, a registered Republican, will also seek both the Democratic and Republican nominations in the May primary. The open seat oversees court cases in Derry borough and township, and New Alexandria.

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Testimonies wrap up in Unity couple's appeal to keep their chickens

Proponents of enforcing Unity Township’s current zoning ordinance which bans raising backyard chickens on residential properties testified during a public hearing Tuesday.

Three residents of Lawson Heights testified before the Unity Township Zoning Hearing Board against Jeff and Kristin Kuhns’ appeal of a zoning violation the couple received in July regarding the 20 chickens they raise on a 0.46-acre lot along Range Street.

The Kuhnses are seeking a zoning variance which would allow them to keep their birds.

At the two previous hearings — each curtailed due to time constraints — only witnesses who supported the Kuhns’ appeal testified.

Zoning hearing board members Jim Kelley, Jackie Nindel and Tim Thomas are expected to make a decision on the couple’s appeal as early as March 23, though township officials said the decision could come at a later special meeting.

By that point, township solicitor Gary Falatovich and attorney David Toal, who is representing the Kuhnses, are to have submitted findings of fact and a suggested decision to the zoning hearing board based on testimonies from the public hearings regarding the Kuhns’ appeal.

Township zoning officer Harry Hosack testified on Tuesday that he helped write the provision banning chickens on properties having less than two acres when the township enacted the current zoning ordinance in 1991.

After receiving complaints from neighbors, Hosack said he investigated the Kuhns’ property and subsequently issued a notice of violation. He informed the Kuhnses of their options, which included appealing the violation by filing for a zoning variance — or finding another place to keep the birds.

The zoning ordinance violation dated July 13 cited from the 1991 ordinance, which states: “Chickens are considered farm animals and are not permitted to be kept on properties having less than two acres.”

The Kuhnses had 20 days to get rid of the fowl or potentially face a minimum $300 fine if they chose not to appeal.

James Ross, a resident of Range Street for more than 16 years, testified against the couple’s appeal for a variance. He said he learned of the Kuhns’ chickens about eight to 10 months ago.

“I heard them, I could smell them,” he said.

Ross alleges that on Nov. 29, he witnessed a hawk fly into the fencing around one of the chicken coops.

The following afternoon, Ross said he saw Kristin Kuhns holding the hawk “belly up” and put it into a cage with a blanket overtop.

He alleges Jeff Kuhns then started throwing a kitchen knife “three or four times inside the cage trying to kill the hawk” before it flew away.

“It is illegal to kill a hawk in Pennsylvania. Therefore, the ordinance should remain as is,” Ross said.

However, Kristin Kuhns denied Ross’s allegation. She said on the date in question, she heard “abnormal chicken noises” coming from inside the coop and noticed the birds were “clearly distressed.” After finding a hawk inside the coop, Kuhns said she seized the hawk and later told game commissioners who came to question her that it flew away.

“They asked me, ‘Did you harm the hawk?’” I said, “Absolutely not.”

She said none of the chickens were seriously injured.

Residents had previously raised concerns about the chickens attracting predator animals into the neighborhood.

In reference to the hawk, Ross said, “What other predators are trying to get into the chicken coop? If there are no predators, then why are they transporting the chickens every night into a wooden enclosed shed?”

Ross also said he has observed a manure pile on their property consisting of bedding from the chicken coop which he can smell from his property.

Another resident of Range Street, Lisa Flanyak, testified that she witnessed the Kuhnses cleaning out the beds of the chicken coups in late November.

“Their yard was a muddy mess (afterwards),” she said. “It was like a pool of water.”

Kristin Kuhns, however, said this is a normal cleaning as part of a “deep litter method.” This method calls for bedding material and droppings to compost inside the coop instead of being cleaned out and replaced regularly. She said the composting is then placed into bins and the coops are cleaned out about once every six months.

Steve Stanish, a poultry technician of more than 35 years, completed an inspection of the Kuhnses’ chicken coops in September. He said on Tuesday, “When I was there, I smelled no odor. They did have composting while I was there.”

He said the couple’s compositing is within best management practices, and he doesn’t see any health hazards. Kuhns also entered into evidence an article from Penn State Extension about composting guidelines that the couple follows.

While Flanyak is “not aware of a smell” coming from the manure pile, she said, “What bothers me the most is the noise. There’s not a room in my house where I cannot hear those roosters when they crow. They’re so loud.”

Flanyak has also testified there have been times when the chickens crossed over onto her property.

Another resident of Range Street, James Sowerbrower, testified that the chickens cause a “routine disruption similar to a barking dog that is a problem.” He believes the ordinance should be enforced since they are “put in place for the benefit of the majority.”

Kristen Kuhns, who originally testified in September, submitted several medical records as evidence on Tuesday — including a letter from her personal care provider asking that Kuhns be allowed to keep the chickens since they provide emotional support and improve mental health.

Kuhns said township officials required these records be submitted as public evidence in this hearing.

“I’m giving what I’m comfortable with as far as my medical records to demonstrate need, to demonstrate hardship and to demonstrate why we are asking for a variance,” she said.

Kuhns also entered several Facebook posts from the couple’s “Kuhns Huhn House” page into evidence, suggesting they never sold any eggs from their chickens, rather gave them away to neighbors and friends for free. The posts Kuhns submitted also indicate the couple did not accept payment for any eggs and they “just want to help the community.”

Last month, township solicitor Gary Falatovich entered into evidence multiple Facebook posts from the couple’s “Kuhns Huhn House” page which implied they were selling eggs from the chickens.

“It’s my feeling there were very cherry picked and only went up to May 2020,” she said on Tuesday.

Darnell Biss of Range Street was unable to attend Tuesday’s hearing. Biss previously complained about the chickens at an Aug. 20 public forum held by the township. She also circulated a petition over the summer objecting to the Kuhns’ chickens which was submitted as evidence Tuesday.

The Unity Township Planning Commission will hold a public hearing 6 p.m. Thursday regarding whether there should be modifications to the current zoning ordinance to relax the requirements for the keeping of chickens in residential areas in the township.

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest chapter in what’s become a hot-button issue in the township, along with nearby municipalities such as Derry Borough and North Huntingdon Township.

Debbie Thir of New Alexandria lets her dog Rusty, a 5-year-old cattle dog, check out the pool for the first time. The water is warmed to 90 degrees and there is a drying station for the animals.

Amy Altman McChesney announced bid for Derry Township district judge

Amy Altman McChesney has announced her candidacy to succeed retiring Mark Bilik as district judge in Derry Township.

McChesney, 42, of Derry Township has previously held positions in the Westmoreland County Clerk of Courts office as well as a district judge’s office.

She said she “intends to bring a common sense approach to the common man’s court.”

McChesney, a registered Republican, will seek both the Democratic and Republican nominations in the May primary. The open seat oversees court cases in Derry borough and township, and New Alexandria.

“I am experienced, knowledgeable and familiar with criminal and civil procedures and protocol in the magisterial court as well as the Court of Common Pleas,” she said.

A 1996 Derry Area graduate, McChesney continued her education at St. Vincent College where she studied psychology and general administration of justice.

She is a life-long and active member of her community, having served as a board or committee member, officer and/or leader of Derry Township Agricultural Fair, Boy Scout Troop 345 based in New Alexandria, as well as the New Alexandria Home Economics and Westmoreland Squares 4-H clubs.

She has held an assortment of positions with the Derry Township Fair and managed or assisted in managing the junior livestock sale for Derry Township Agricultural Fair.

McChesney’s support and leadership roles in the community have provided her an opportunity to advocate, promote and support the Derry Township community at state level events in Harrisburg.

She is married with five children.

Her husband honorably retired from the Pennsylvania State Police.

She and her husband help run a multigenerational farm that has been in the family since 1836.