Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wrong direction, again

It looks like some folks in Fayette County have some explaining to do. Like Fayette County commissioners Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky, who told us they were "getting things done" when running for re-election earlier this year. Like Fay-Penn Economic Development head honcho Mike Krajovic, who has claimed there are jobs galore but no workers to fill them.

Thanks to today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, we have some interesting new numbers that paint a far less rosey and self-serving picture of where the county really stands.

Here in the patch, where our eyes are always open, they opened even wider as we read in the Post-Gazette that Fayette County has two of the top 10 population LOSERS among Pennsylvania's 203 state House districts. From 2000 to 2010, the 51st district represented by Tim Mahoney lost a little over 8 percent of its people, and the 52nd district represented by Deb Kula lost a little more than 8.5 percent of its people. Those are the ninth- and eighth-highest losses in the state.

Those numbers mean that of 203 House Districts, 194 did better than the two districts covering the vast majority of Fayette County's geographic territory.

On the state senate side, Rich Kasunic's district, which covers all of Fayette County, was the fifth-biggest population loser in Pennsylvania in the last census count, losing nearly 6 percent of its people. So 45 of the state's 50 senate districts are doing better than ours, in the population department.

If you want to see the numbers for youself, the Post-Gazette has a nifty chart that you can view free of charge.

What is striking to us, here in the patch, is that the chart also shows the top 10 population GAINERS. They all happen to be districts held by Republicans in eastern Pennsylvania, with population gains of roughly 20 to 25 percent. They must be doing something different.

We don't know why the Herald-Standard did not have this story first, which is what you would expect from a local paper. But for our money it appears to us the Post-Gazette is becoming the newspaper of record for Fayette County.

That's likely to further upset WMBS radio talk show host Mark Rafail, who prefers to emphasize positives, and who chastized the out-of-town paper for doing a story on the dismissal of his predecessor, Bob Foltz. (Maybe he can divert attention from this story by re-mentioning the spat between the two ice cream truck drivers, or talking about the weather.)

We can't wait to see tomorrow's Herald-Standard story on these numbers, if they even do one at all. And in addition to the perspectives that may be forthcoming from the usual old standbys -- who are sure to blame everybody but themselves -- we would be extremely interested in knowing what some outsiders or electoral challengers have to say.

We have resisted attempts to portray things in a more positive light than is deserving, and this Post-Gazette recitation of facts only enhances our belief that only in la-la-land is Fayette County doing as good as some proponents would have you believe.

A far more accurate appraisal can be found in the Thursday story, "Loan program making $105 million available to homeowners facing foreclosures," (Herald-Standard, Aug. 18)

"As we know in Fayette County, we're already struggling with high poverty and unemployment and a lot of challenges as far as job creation. It's important that we get the word out about this program."

That comes from James Stark, executive director of Fayette County Community Action Agency Inc.

We like his honesty so much, we are making Stark our first Honorary Patch Hunky.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why the sudden change?

Here in the patch, we wish would at least attempt to rescue its shriveling relevency by asking a few questions regarding the sudden shift by Commissioners Vince Zapotosky and Vince Vicites concerning the county's copy machine contract.

Instead of putting the contract out to competitive bids/proposals, as has traditionally been done, we learned on July 27 that the Vinces now want to use a state cooperative purchasing program known as COSTARS. ("Copier contract debated at commissioner meeting," Amy Revak,

What is known, as this point, is that this is all about changing the procurement method used to obtain a service. Instead of using competitive bids/proposals, which generally means the low bidder wins, the Vinces want to switch to picking a company from a preapproved list kept by the state.

What is not known, at this point, is why these two seasoned commissioners, who each have been around long enough to know the various methods for obtaining contracted services, decided to rescind a prior motion to seek competitive bids/proposals and go instead with picking a company from the COSTARS list.

The plot thickens when you read that that, according to a Ford Business Machines representative, his is the ONLY approved copier machine vendor on the COSTARS list. (We find that hard to believe, by the way, and it is something we would like to see checked out.)

What the public should expect a reporter to do is walk across the street to the Fayette County Election Bureau, take 15 minutes to look at the campaign expense reports filed last year by Vicites and Zapotosky, and see if Ford Business Machines founder John Garlow made any contributions to their campaign(s).

If he, or any other known employees of the firm, did that, it certainly would put a different shine on this comment made by Zapotosky: "This is an opportunity to hire local. There's much more to a bottom line than a dollar."

Yes, there is. There are campaign conributions (possibly) -- and there are the votes of the dozen or so Ford Business Machines employees (and their families) who packed the commissioners' meeting on July 26.

The public deserves to know if campaign contributions could be a factor in this equation, don't you think?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Gimme shelter

If you are a single person earning $53,760 a year, or a family of four with annual income of $76,800, would you expect to qualify for subsidized housing in the city of Uniontown? Probably not.

But those are exactly the thresholds to qualify for new houses in the Maple Street Estates complex, being overseen by the Uniontown Redevelopment Authority.

Here in the patch, we were stunned to read in that the first three of these houses are built. They are appraised at $144,000, $136,500 and $135,000, but each of them also apparently qualifies for a $30,000 grant and a $10,000 deferred loan. ("Uniontown Redevelopment Authority approves parking lot sales agreement,", August 10)

That type of subsidy would ostensibly take the price of the $144,000 house to $104,000, the $136,500 house to $96,500, and the price of the $135,000 house to $95,000.

That's a pretty sweet deal -- if you can get it. Who wouldn't like a 27 percent reduction on the fair market value of a new home, even if you are a single person making nearly $54,000 a year, or a family of four making nearly $77,000 a year?

Most single people we know in Fayette County are perfectly able to buy their own home on a salary of $54,000 without a federal subsidy. Same thing for a family of four with $77,000 of household income.

Down the road, we would be just a tad curious to know who these lucky homeowners turn out to be. According to the story, the names of nine people are already on a list being kept by the redevelopment authority.

Here in the patch, we'll lay you 3-1 odds that many, if not most, of these homes end up in the hands of people who have some type of connections. We would love to see inquire about seeing that list, and asking a few question about how the winners of this sweepstakes will be chosen.

After all, this is a project subsidized by the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program and overseen by the Uniontown Redevelopment Authority, so it should all be public information.

Those of you who wonder why the federal government is broke now have part of the answer. It is providing $40,000 subsidies to families with incomes of $77,000, so they can buy $144,000 brand-new homes for $104,000, in a county where many people earning far less are able to buy their own homes in that price range and above.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Show us the (state) money!

At the next Laurel Highlands School District board meeting, we here in the patch hope that someone pulls board member Bill Elias aside and reminds him to stop biting the hand that has fed him.

In his commentary, "Students hurt by budget cuts," (, July 24), Elias railed against the $2 million cut in state subsidy to Laurel Highlands that "Harrisburg imposed."

While Elias correctly recited that Gov. Tom Corbett's budget "drastically short-changed public schools," he failed to make an important distinction when applying the rest of his tar and feathers.

Elias teed off on the legislature in general, ending his commentary with: "I will continue to work tirelessly to garner state support for their fair share of local school budgets. Furthermore, I ask local voters to demand our state political leaders to work tirelessly to ensure a fairer return to local school districts."

As a retired Laurel Highlands school teacher (he taught driver's ed, we hear), Elias surely knows that the Democratic legislators who have represented his school district for time immemoriam have worked tirelessly to bring big state subsidies to the district. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing teachers, is after all a key Democratic constituency.

And Elias is surely aware that not one local Democrat, in the senate or house, voted in favor of this year's state budget, largely out of protest over the cuts to education. But those Democrats are seriously outnumbered by Republicans in both chambers -- Republicans from other areas who, apparently, are working tirelessly to curtail the practice of paying for their own schools AND those like Laurel Highlands.

A May 19 news story noted that Corbett's proposed budget cut Laurel Highland's state subsidy by $2.2 million, or 9 percent. But when we checked the state Department of Education website, we found that Laurel Highlands' basic education subsidy for 2011-12 actually increased 2 percent, or $250,000, to $13 million. (The board still raised property taxes for this year.)

At least some of that state money goes toward allowing Laurel Highlands to enact a policy of paying retirees $100 for each unused sick day. We don't recall Elias speaking out on altering that policy during the recent budget discussion. Could that be because he cashed a pretty hefty check for his own unused sick days when he retired as a teacher?

The state subsidy also has allowed Laurel Highlands, in part, to continue paying family insurance coverage to early retirees until they reach age 65, at a huge cost to the district. We don't recall Elias uttering a public peep about ending this costly practice. Was he a recipient of this perk, as well?

In slightly more than 40 of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, employees this year agreed to take a one-year pay freeze to save programs and/or avoid tax hikes. Laurel Highlands, which is still getting a pretty hefty state subsidy, was not one of them. Does Elias think it should have been?

After years and years and years of increased state subsidy, all because it qualifies as a "poor" school district, how has all that extra state cash affected the performance of the students that Elias claims are hurt by this year's budget cuts? It is a fair question, but one that few dare to ask.

In student performance on state standardized test scores, Laurel Highlands ranked 425th out of 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, accordng to the Pittburgh Business Times.

That is 75 spots from the bottom, out of 500. We would like to know what Elias' plan is for changing that poor ranking, other than blaming Harrisburg and asking for even more money. There doesn't appear to be any correlation between state subsidy increases and better student test scores.

In an editorial that appeared next to Elias' column, once again called for school districts to adopt anti-nepotism policies. The only public school district in the county that has done so (Frazier) also happens to reside far from the basement when it comes to student test scores.

It is a commendable position to stake out. But it will also never happen. Too many school board members look at you like you're from another planet for even mentioning the topic.

It is easier for them to pass the buck by asking for more state bucks, just like Elias.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shared sacrifice?

Here in the patch, we couldn't help but feel saddened by the pain conveyed by Uniontown Hospital CEO Paul Bacharach, as conveyed in the un-bylined story, "Uniontown Hospital lays off 25." (July 26, 2011)

Most of these job cuts came in the business, service, maintenance and clerical departments, said Bacharach, who informed the reading public that the cuts were due to reductions in state and federal reimbursements in Medicare and Medicaid.

Those two programs, which provide health insurance for the elderly and the poor, cover a whopping 80 percent of the hospital's patients, said Bacharach. (And while that is a statistic that doesn't seem to jive with all the pronouncements that the county is on the move economically, that's a matter for another day.)

"While we regret being forced to trim our expenses, we simply can't ignore the fact that decisions in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg have dramatically affected our budget," said Bacharach. " ... we have no choice but to adjust our expenses to be more in line with what hte government decides to pay us for those services."

The fact that this front-page story carried no byline by a reporter is a powerful clue that it was a hospital press release, printed verbatim as submitted by the hospital heirarchy. That is a sad substitute for real news produced by a real reporter.

If a good reporter had been assigned to the story, perhaps they could have added just a little bit of balance and perspective, don't you think? We visited our favorite free website,, which allows you to look at the federal tax reports filed by all nonprofit organizations.

There, we found Uniontown Hospital's tax form for 2009, the last year available online. And under Schedule J, Part II, the listing of highest compensated employees, we found Paul Bacharach.

His total compensation package for 2009, for running a hospital where 80 percent of patients are covered by Medicare and Medicaid, was $507,464. (That's not a misprint; the total is over a half-million dollars.) Here is the breakdown, which you can view yourself if you take the time: base compensation $287,582, other reportable compensation $19,275, retirement and deferred compensation $167,636 and nontaxable benefits $33,153.

Those numbers make it easier for us to understand when Bacharach says that expense reductions are necessary "because we simply can't spend more than we are paid for the services we provide."

At least when it comes to employees at the lower rungs of the pay scale, that appears to be the case.

Bacharach isn't alone in being a highly paid hospital employee. According to the tax form, Steven Handy had a 2009 base compensation of $184,954 and total compensation of $328,442, and William Johnson had a 2009 base of $121,212 and total of $151,931.

Add them up and you have $988,019 going to three top hospital employees in a single year. (And that was two years ago, the last for which the information is available.)

We don't doubt that Uniontown Hospital, and lots of other hospitals, are going through tough times. Nor do we doubt that skilled leaders are needed to steer them through those choppy waters.

But we have serious doubts that in Uniontown Hospital's case, the pain is being shared at all rungs of the employee ladder.