Sullivan County Commissioners (above, from left) Brian Hoffman, Wiley Norton, and Donna Iannone, and Bradford County Commissioners Ed Bustin, Daryl Miller and Doug McLinko were among more than 60 county commissioners representing Pennsylvania at the first ever County Commissioners Conference held in Washington, DC, yesterday.
Story by Rick Hiduk
While the President of the United States was making headlines in Europe, his lower-level cabinet members were busy back home looking inward, searching for ways to effectively connect grassroots America with the Federal Government.
County Commissioners from Pennsylvania were the first to be invited to participate in an intense intergovernmental conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House Complex. Conferences with county commissioners from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and possibly Florida are soon to follow.
“The conference provided us with an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the role of federal government and county issues,” stated Sullivan County Commissioner Donna Iannone. “Counties face numerous issues, and learning what resources are available and having contacts at the federal level could help us get problems solved in the future.”
“We’re the first people in government that people see,” Susquehanna County Commissioner Betsy Arnold (below) concurred. “We live in the communities. We go to the ballgames. We go to the grocery stores. Apparently, the president isn’t big on middlemen and wants to deal with us more directly.”
“This was the first of what the administration hopes will be an opportunity to meet with all of the states’ commissioners,” said Bradford County Commissioner Ed Bustin, who admits that, when the invitation arrived, it was a little bit vague and confusing. “It didn’t follow the usual invitation protocol,” Bustin related.
The pace of the conference was so intense and so much was discussed, in fact, that local officials might have been pinching themselves on the way home, wondering if their participation in this historic inaugural event was real.
“Because of the fact that this was the first time, there were people joking and asking on Thursday, ‘Was this in fact a legitimate thing?’” said Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller, who attended with Bustin and fellow commissioner Doug McLinko.
“We were the test run,” Arnold related. “They plan on inviting all of the states, one-by-one.”
More than 60 county commissioners from Pennsylvania (above) seized the opportunity to represent their constituents and made the trip to Washington, DC on July 12, meeting with the National Association of Counties on Wednesday evening to get a briefing of the conference from that organization’s perspective.
“Our region was very well represented,” noted Bustin, citing commissioners from Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga and Potter counties participating in the conference.
“As county commissioners, we have daily direct contact with our constituents,” said Iannone, who attended the conference with fellow commissioners Wiley Norton and Brian Hoffman. The importance of the gathering, Iannone noted, was summed up by Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s top counselors. “She stated that we are the ‘connective tissue’ that joins the U.S. together.”
After a two-hour tour of the White House on Thursday morning, the commissioners were immersed in what Bustin described on Twitter as an “informative interaction with a large contingent of cabinet staffers discussing issues critical to PA counties.” The Intergovernmental Affairs Department (IGA) coordinated the event.
The operations of the IGA have undergone significant changes under President Trump, according to Bustin, whose previous experience with the IGA was during a national conference dealing with the opioid crisis.
“White House staff members are now embedded in that department,” said Bustin, in reference to deputies and advisors who represent various facets of the administration, including the departments of Energy, Education, Interior, State, Transportation, NASA, Health & Human Services, Finances & Budget and the Small Business Administration. Their goal was to learn how counties might better relate with their areas of expertise.
“I think they had very sincere intentions,” Arnold maintained. “We were able to talk. It wasn’t like they just talked at us. Most of the counties across the commonwealth are dealing with the same things, like the opioid crisis. And we all want economic development.”
Arnold was impressed by Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon’s presentation. “Trump’s putting a considerable amount of money into trade schools and apprenticeships because they’re are jobs that are not being filled,” she remarked.
While most counties in Pennsylvania have some things in common, each county of course faces its own challenges, and the Bradford County Commissioners (below) were united in their approach to the conference on a number of issues, especially fair trade.
“Bradford County had it’s own agenda, including trade issues that seemed to be having a stranglehold on GTP (Global Tungsten Products in Towanda) being able to maximize its position in the tungsten market,” Bustin explained. “We were all in agreement and pretty strong on our protest about that.”
According to Miller, GTP manufactures a variety of sizes of military projectiles, while the United States is using China as a subcontractor for production of military weaponry. Commissioner McLinko spoke with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn about trade issues with China, which has been “dumping” powders on the market.
While attending their next meeting, the three Bradford County commissioners got a tap on the shoulder and were invited into a side room where they had an opportunity to plead GTP’s case to other representatives from the Department of Energy.
“I hope that we made the individuals whom we spoke with aware of the problem,” said Miller. “We are hoping that, in the days and weeks to come, we will reach out to them again and that they will respond so that we can set up a meeting between GTP and the Department of Energy and have them meet face to face.”
“We felt that was a huge accomplishment of the trip to engage in that dialogue,” Bustin remarked.
Additionally, Miller was happy with the opportunity to address the position that the Marcellus shale region plays in energy development and its role on the national and international stage. Bustin took interest in a a presentation on clean energy, including new techniques in turbine, solar, and fuel cell technology. The group was told that federal energy efficiency tax credits passed during the Obama administration fell short due to a typographical error.
“Tax relief was only given to wind and solar,” said Bustin. “The additional categories were left out of the bill. They (Trump’s advisors) are working to close the loop.”
According to Miller, Bradford County was also heard by the Department of Agriculture. “We met with them on issues relative to the dairy industry and the struggles they are facing and the importance of agriculture in our economy.”
Arnold had an opportunity to speak with Carly Miller, Deputy Director of External and Government Affairs, who told Arnold that she’d like to get Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to come to PA on a bus trip, “so I’m going to be in touch with her about that and see if we can get him to Susquehanna County.”
Bustin had some time to speak with Kellyanne Conway about the $45 billion earmarked for the opioid crisis in the proposed federal budget. “I think it’s critical that, if they are looking to get the biggest bang from their buck, they should put it to the county level,” Bustin maintained, suggesting that funding for counseling, treatment facilities and other options are best decided at the local level. “Throughout the country, I think that’s where the biggest value is.”
“My hope is that the Trump administration will ‘walk the talk’ and help counties solve some of their issues like broadband services to rural areas, fighting the opioid crisis, and helping small businesses be successful,” said Ionnone, who is also assertive of Pennsylvania’s role in energy independence as it pertains to “fairness to landowners, the environment and being good stewards to our future.”
She was also looking for ways to fund rural EMS and federal mandates, make regulations more streamlined, and guarantee flood insurance.
While none of the commissioners knew what to expect of the conference, they agreed that the trip to the nation’s capitol was well worth the time and provided an unprecedented chance to take local concerns to the president’s key advisors in a non-partisan manner.
“It was very well done,” Daryl Miller concluded. “It was very informative with a lot of back and forth and exchange.”
Arnold agreed, adding, “It was a great experience. It was an honor to be there.”