UNIVERSITY PARK — Vern Squier finally got to introduce Centre County’s commissioners in front of a packed room of community leaders.

Squier, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, has wanted to host the county commissioners for years to address the challenges the organization faces.

His idea came to fruition Tuesday afternoon at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel when Commissioners Steve Dershem, Chris Exarchos and Michael Pipe spoke at the first State of the County Luncheon.

Lesley Kistner, the CBICC’s communications director, said 180 people attended, representing 86 local businesses, governments, schools and nonprofits.

“It’s an opportunity for the commissioners to interact with people here and to address their concerns and the challenges they’re facing,” Kistner said.

Exarchos said the county received $62 million last year in revenue, 45 percent of which came from real estate taxes and 32 percent from state funding. But the county had $68 million in expenses last year.

The $6 million deficit poses an issue for how the county is funded. State funding has decreased by about $15 million, from $34.4 million in 2004 to $19.9 million 2013. Health insurance, pension and prison operation costs have risen a combined $6 million over the same period.

Pipe said another key concern is the prison population in the Centre County Correctional Facility, which has a maximum population of 400 inmates. The facility has housed more than 300 a day in 2014, up from about 175 a day in 2005.

Pipe identified drug and alcohol abuse as one of the primary reasons for incarceration.

Michele MacDonald, HFL Corp. director of sales, questioned how the county is addressing re-entry into the community for imprisoned residents and referred tothe State Intermediate Punishment program, which is designed for offenders convicted of drug-related offenses.

SIP participants serve a flat sentence of 24 months, including a minimum seven months in prison, at least two months in a community-based therapeutic community and at least six months in outpatient treatment. The sentence includes supervised reintegration into the community and an individualized treatment plan.

MacDonald said she was pleased with the county commissioners’ response that they would look into the program.

“My family has been affected by the heroin epidemic, and so I’ve researched it and learned about SIP,” MacDonald said. “They seemed to receive what I had to say well, and I’m happy that (Dershem) said he’ll talk with the Drug and Alcohol Council about it.”

Pipe said a re-entry planning group, consisting of about 40 agencies, has been created to reform how citizens come back into the community. In January, the group will form a strategic plan for reentry.

“It’s something I hope we can talk about next year here and the successes of it,” Pipe said.

Pipe said he thought the event was successful.

“I was thrilled with the terrific turnout for the event,” he said. “I hope attendees learned more about what county government does, what challenges we have for the future and our proposals for solving them.”, September 16, 2014
By Shawn Annarelli —