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Unity supervisor proposes tax exception for all senior citizens

A decade ago, Unity Township Supervisor Mike O’Barto spearheaded a plan to lessen the tax burden on the township’s most vulnerable group of citizens, seniors.

After a long process of research and navigating around many roadblocks, the township rolled out a rebate program, which offers seniors who qualify a rebate on their township taxes. Something which, O’Barto said, doesn’t exist in any other municipality in Westmoreland County.

Now, O’Barto would like all seniors (age 65 and older) in the township to be exempt from township taxes.

“Government is so good at creating ways to add to taxes, but not so good at reducing taxes,” said O’Barto.

According to O’Barto, he’s had an opportunity to speak to countless seniors who are just making it, and this would help them out so much.

“All I want to do is make it better,” he said.

While the township has no control over school or county property taxes, O’Barto said they can do something about township taxes for seniors, who, O’Barto said, have been paying township taxes their whole lives.

The current rebate program has eligibility income guidelines. In 2018, O’Barto said 341 seniors qualified and last year that number dropped to 314. But this program could offer a rebate to all senior citizens living in the township.

O’Barto did a good amount of research before making his proposal, including looking at the most recent U.S. Census, which revealed something notable.

On the report, Unity Township’s senior population was at 21.79%, meaning approximately 80% of the township is comprised of residents that are under 65.

“I think that’s a sign that there’s still a lot of young people moving into Unity Township,” he said.

O’Barto did say the exception he’s proposing would have restrictions. The first, taken from the current rebate program, would be that any senior wanting to take advantage of the program would have to establish five-year residency.

Also, one tax that wouldn’t be eligible for the program would be the fire tax, which is vital for the stability of the township’s volunteer fire departments.

O’Barto said he understands that it’s not a lot as township taxes are fairly low, but perhaps saving these funds could help seniors put money toward other taxes or other bills, like their mortgage.

“If we can help one person stay in their home, (it’s worth it),” said O’Barto.

O’Barto asked the supervisors to approve a motion directing the township’s solicitor, Gary Falatovich to begin looking into the prospect, identify obstacles and see how the township might navigate the issues.

“I’m willing to force the issue,” said O’Barto, turning to Falatovich.

“I didn’t want to say I don’t care what you say,” he said chuckling. “I just think this would be a great thing.”

Ed Poponick, who participated in the meeting via telephone, said he agrees with O’Barto and would like Falatovich to at least investigate it.

A motion was passed unanimously to have Falatovich look into it for the supervisors.

During the citizens comment section of the meeting, Christian Buchheit of the Charter Oak Civic Association addressed the supervisors, asking them to revisit the idea of having a universal garbage/recycle contractor for the township.

According to Buchheit, there are multiple companies that collect garbage and recycled materials on different days, with different rates and different levels of service. It has been leading to lots of issues.

He added that a “uniform service and rates would lead to a lot higher customer satisfaction.”

He said the association receives numerous complaints on the garbage situation all the time.

Charter Oak isn’t an HOA or a governing body, so it can’t have its own garbage collector like other communities in the township do. He said he wouldn’t want a decision to overshadow what happens in those communities, but the current system just isn’t working.

Buchheit also told the supervisors that he would like to see the notification requirements for public meetings modernized. A recent zoning hearing board public hearing was advertised in the newspaper, as required by the state, but Buchheit said that so few people read the newspaper that the township should consider alternate notification vehicles, such as social media or direct mail.

Falatovich said the township is mandated by the state to run the public notice advertisement in a local newspaper, so that’s something that would have to be changed at a state legislation level. However, he did note that public notices that run in the paper are also posted on the Unity Township Facebook page and in the case of the zoning hearing board hearing, the leaders of an organized citizens group that expressed interest in the hearing were notified personally of the hearing.

In other business, the supervisors approved a contribution of $142,000 toward a sewer line extension project by the Unity Township Municipal Authority on Donohoe Road, which will provide additional service to three businesses, along with a number of residential homes.

According to O’Barto, the businesses contributed $100,000 toward the project, which is estimated to cost $500,000 to complete. The township’s contribution will come from the township’s last round of ARPA funds, so no tax dollars will be used.

“It would be a shot in the arm for the township, because it would allow these businesses to expand,” said O’Barto.

The supervisors also approved the following items of note:

  • Resolution setting the PMRS employee contribution rate at 3.5% for 2022;
  • Resolution authorizing the township’s 2022 tax levy resolution;
  • Resolution amending Act 537 Phase 3A of Weatherton Farms Estates adding 10 additional EDUs for sanitary sewer system;
  • Resolution for intergovernmental cooperation agreement with UTMA, which authorizes the process for supervisors to appoint members to fill vacancies, which includes UTMA providing a list of names to recommend for openings;
  • Simple final plan for Shaw subdivision, owned by Robert and Suzanne Shaw, 1606 Keats Lane, for a property of 2.494 acres, to revise the property line between two parcels, both owned by the Shaws.

Local
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‘It’s crazy’: Finding work, keeping workers can prove frustrating in current market

Good help is so hard to find. And so is a good job — well, depending on who you’re asking.

Both employers and job-seekers at the career fair Thursday at Westmoreland County Community College (WCCC)’s Latrobe Center on Depot Street, Latrobe, seemed vexed by the current state of the labor market and the lingering hardships caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Some employers indicated that after a period of recovery from the early economic ravages of the pandemic, business is picking up again, but they’re having a hard time finding — and keeping — enough workers to meet the demand.

“It’s crazy,” said Joe Wyant of Leechburg, director of training for Valley Dairy Restaurant, a popular regional chain with an 80-plus-year history and 11 locations including Latrobe, Blairsville, Indiana, Mount Pleasant, Belle Vernon, Connellsville, Kittanning, Dubois, Butler, Cranberry and Johnstown.

He said Valley Dairy is looking to hire people at almost every level, at practically every location — everything from managers to bussers, from full time to part time — but it’s proving difficult.

“The hardest thing is that people don’t show up for interviews or their first shift,” Wyant lamented.

The chain is a family-friendly place to work, he noted, with flexible scheduling and a variety of benefits available.

“It’s a great company to work for,” Wyant said.

But despite going to great lengths to attract new workers and to encourage them to stick around, the company has had limited success.

“Getting applications is one thing, but then getting people to come in and even just to stay” is tough in the current job market, he said.

Jennifer Dietrich, human resources generalist at City Brewing Co., which owns and operates the former Rolling Rock brewery on 33rd Street, Latrobe, said her company — like so many other businesses — faces a different sort of challenge: labor shortages related to the pandemic.

“We have so many people out with COVID,” she said, noting that the impact on City Brewing’s unionized workforce has forced the company to utilize overtime to keep up with customer demand.

She said City Brewing recently signed a couple of new contracts and it is looking to ramp up its operations in the area from five days a week to seven within the next few weeks. To that end, it is primarily seeking warehouse workers, forklift operators, brewhouse workers and general laborers.

Dietrich noted that as part of its effort to keep up with customer demand, City Brewing is in the process of opening up a new warehouse and distribution center at the Regional Industrial Development Corp. (RIDC) Westmoreland Innovation Center in East Huntingdon Township. She said the company currently is looking to hire 50 to 60 workers for the new site.

A recruiter for another local employer, Excela Health, cited the impact of the pandemic on the search for workers in the health care field.

Angela Burd, a senior recruiter at Excela, said it seems like some people are afraid to work in health care due to the ever-present risks associated with COVID-19.

“People are nervous,” she said.

But for people who aren’t comfortable working in a hospital setting, she noted, Excela also has plenty of job opportunities at less busy locations like doctors’ offices.

“Locally, there are so many opportunities,” she said. “It’s sort of a broad stroke of everything.”

The hardships of the current labor market aren’t just affecting employers, of course. Job-seekers, too, said they are struggling with their own set of challenges.

Some noted that it can be difficult to balance stressful, pandemic-rattled lives with the demands of a job — for example, it’s a tough situation for parents who need the flexibility to stay home with children who have to go into quarantine or isolation if they test positive for COVID-19 or if they come into direct contact with someone who tested positive.

Other concerns were mentioned, too, like the disparity between low wages in some industries and the rising cost of living due to inflation.

Mallorie Palanko of Latrobe, a 2007 Greater Latrobe Senior High School graduate who earned a degree in criminal justice at American InterContinental University, said she’s been on the hunt for a new job in search of better advancement opportunities.

She’s currently working from home as an insurance fraud investigator, but in the past she’s worked in the law, medical and banking fields, she said.

Palanko has applied for more than 100 jobs so far in her search.

“The job market is difficult right now,” she said. “It’s very rare to get a call back. There are so many people applying, it’s very difficult to get noticed right now.”

She said she’s resorted to what she’s dubbed “cold emailing,” sending emails to potential employers to seek out job opportunities even if they’re not being advertised.

The rising cost of living and the increase in prices for common expenses like gas are forcing people to look for better-paying positions, but “no one wants to pay,” Palanko said.

She’s open to just about any opportunity, she noted, but if it involves working for a company that isn’t local — say, for instance, an employer located in Pittsburgh — she’d want to work in a hybrid situation, working part of the time from home rather than driving to the office everyday. She’d be open to working fully on site for a local company, however.

She said her current work-from-home job, which she has held for more than three years, has left her craving a return to working face-to-face with other people.

“You don’t have that personable interaction,” she said.

Palanko noted that remote work presents other issues, too. For instance, if you’re working from home, it can feel like you never really get to leave your job.

“Remote work is a lot harder, I think, than people realize,” she said.

Fortunately, both for those looking for work and those looking for workers, there are resources available to help make the task easier.

One such resource is Pennsylvania CareerLink, an initiative of the state Department of Labor and Industry designed to connect individuals seeking employment, employers and career-training specialists.

CareerLink offers a comprehensive job-matching system with many different options that can narrow down the results based on the user’s needs and preferences. To access it, visit www.pacareerlink.pa.gov/jponline.

Young adults who meet certain eligibility requirements can get free assistance through CareerSTEPS, a career-readiness program offered by Regional Integrated Human Services, Inc. (RIHS) in Westmoreland and Fayette counties. The service is funded through a grant from the Westmoreland-Fayette Workforce Investment Board (WIB), part of the PA CareerLink network.

To be eligible, participants must be 16-24 years old, out of school and reside in Westmoreland or Fayette, and they must meet income guidelines or be faced with one or more specific barriers in their search for employment. A complete list is available at www.ontherihs.org/career-steps.

David Houpt, CareerSTEPS supervisor, said the program provides help with many different aspects of career development, including GED prep assistance, career exploration, paid work experience, interview preparation, transportation and more.

He described one recent client, an eighth-grade dropout who is now 21 years old, who was having trouble finding opportunities for work and turned to CareerSTEPS for assistance. Now he’s set to begin job training in February to help open some of the doors that were closed to him before.

“We break down barriers,” he said.

Thursday’s career fair was hosted by the Greater Latrobe-Laurel Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, PA CareerLink of Westmoreland and WCCC.


State
Transition to 5G cellular service will cause older 3G phones to stop working in 2022

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) are urging residents with older cell phones to prepare for the phase out of 3G cellular networks and service in 2022.

“The best plan of action is to contact your service provider to determine if your devices are compliant,” said PEMA Deputy for 911 Jeff Boyle. “It’s important to plan now so you don’t lose connectivity.”

The nation’s three major wireless carriers (AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile) have announced plans to shut down their 3G networks to accommodate more advanced services, including 5G. AT&T plans to shut down its 3G services on Feb. 22, T-Mobile/Sprint on March 31 and Verizon on Dec. 31.

As a result, many older phones will be unable to make or receive calls and text messages or use data services. This may also affect other devices that rely on 3G connectivity, such as medical alert devices, tablets, smartwatches, home security systems, and in-vehicle safety, security and roadside assistance systems.

“If your mobile phone is more than a few years old, you may need to upgrade your device before your provider shuts down its 3G network and you lose service – including the ability to call 911,” said Lt. Adam Reed, PSP Communications Office director. “During an emergency, every minute counts whether you need police, fire or medical assistance.”

Most users of these services will be notified directly by the carriers if this discontinuation affects them. However, users of older phones that are used only for 911 connectivity may not receive the notification if they do not have active service with a carrier. Organizations that serve individuals experiencing homelessness or survivors of domestic violence sometimes provide clients with older phones without a service plan for making emergency calls. Users of these types of 911-only phones should check with the organization that provided the phone about their options.

Low-income individuals concerned that their 911-only phones will no longer be supported should consider applying for service through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Lifeline program. Information about eligibility, participating providers and the application process can be found at www.lifelinesupport.org.

911 in Pennsylvania

Approximately 70% of 911 calls in Pennsylvania are made from a mobile phone each year, either by a voice call or a text message. Text-to-911 is not yet available in all counties. You can find the status of text-to-911 service in the county where you live or work online.

While voice calls to 911 are always preferred, there are situations where texting may be necessary:

• Making noise may endanger the caller;

• Someone is suffering a medical emergency that makes them unable to speak;

• Individuals have speech or hearing impairments.

In Pennsylvania, each county is responsible for providing 911 service within their jurisdiction through a centralized Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) where all incoming 911 calls are received and dispatched to the appropriate local police, fire or emergency medical service responders.

Pennsylvania has 61 PSAPs serving 67 counties. A county may provide 911 service through participation in a regional 911 system.

Pennsylvania’s PSAPs process approximately 14.5 million requests for emergency services every year.


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Region bracing for storm with heavy snowfall potential

Although December proved to be a light month with regards to snowfall, it’s looking more and more like January will be much different. Last week a couple of inches hit the region making things a little messy, but the snowstorm that could hit the area on Sunday could bring heavy snow to the region.

Odds are increasing snow accumulation will begin Sunday night. If the forecast holds, the Pittsburgh area, including Latrobe, would be in the northwest quadrant of low pressure, which typically results in heavy snow accumulation, according to the National Weather Service. The storm is expected to continue into Monday.

The amount of snowfall will depend on which path the storm takes.

The NWS said it was still too early to tell, as of Thursday evening.

However, some predictions are calling for as much as 10 inches in some areas.

As of Thursday, forecasters were leaning toward the idea that the storm would track up the Appalachian Mountains and if that happens, the cooler air would create more snow. If it stays closer to the coast, it could miss the region altogether. If it goes farther west with warmer air, the concern for the area would be sleet and freezing rain.


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