Chamber hosts Northumberland County political hopefuls at luncheon
SHAMOKIN - Asked how he would save the county money if elected controller, Chris Grayson said the public hears plenty of "good news" in election season, but never hears about the bad.
Grayson, a Democrat from Mount Carmel, said despite what was said about financial improvements in Northumberland County, his county taxes went up last year.
Grayson was responding to a question from county Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi, who was the first from the public to ask a question of the six candidates who spoke at Wednesday's Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce meet-the-candidates luncheon.
Grayson's comments prompted further response from his opponent, Tony Phillips, the incumbent Republican controller.
"I had to deliver bad news. I will deliver bad news," he said, noting his role in trimming costs at the county, including cutting positions. "It's not a fun thing to do."
The impromptu discussion from those and other candidates provided a lively ending to the 90-minute luncheon, hosted each year by the chamber and sponsored by The News-Item. It was held in the Luzerne County Community College area on the fourth floor of the career and arts center; approximately 40 people attended.
During his allotted five minutes, Grayson said he has the qualifications to run for the position due to his education, experience and business background.
Grayson earned a degree in accounting from Susquehanna University and worked two years with KPMG, an international accounting firm. He has owned and operated Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe in Mount Carmel for 18 years and served eight years as borough tax collector.
The duties of a controller should be to audit the revenue-generating departments and monitor expenditures, he said.
The taxpayers "deserve an independent environment when it comes to the relationship between the commissioners and controller," Grayson said.
Later, when fielding Clausi's question, Grayson said he wanted to implement a training program for tax collectors. While that sounds mundane, he said tax collectors are responsible for the county's revenue.
Phillips, who was elected in 2011 to complete the term of Chuck Erdman, said he has a mix of experience from several areas of county government and private business. Phillips said the greatest lesson taught by his political influences is that he must answer to every person in the county and remained focused on them, not politics.
He cited several accomplishments, including cutting $70,000 in salary expenses in the controller office, in part by not replacing himself as deputy controller and assuming most of those duties when he advanced to controller. He noted the controller's office role in cutting $1.9 million in wasteful spending from the 2012 budget.
"I'll continue to be a watchdog for the county if I'm elected," he said. "I believe we've begun the process of financial recovery, and I'm seeking four more years to assist in this process."
To Clausi's question about cutting costs, Phillips also said a new paperless records system being implemented could save the county as much as $400,000.
Meg Bartos, a Democrat, said she has 20 years of legal experience and she's familiar with the way the protonotary position and the court system works.
"It's important that the person who is working in the prothonotary office has a background in the legal profession," she said.
Bartos said she will take an active role in making the prothonotary office better organized as soon as she's elected.
"Those county records touch everyone's lives. They should be handled with respect and consideration," she said.
Justin Dunkelberger, a Republican, said his engineering background does not get him ready for the prothonotary position, but that he has extensive experience with the legal and court system and courthouses and has dealt with multinational companies in his role as CEO of Penn Wind.
Dunkelberger said he wants to focus immediate problems.
"I want to work for 'right now,' because the office is a trainwreck," he said.
Dunkelberger noted he is a supervisor for Point Township and said "hate and vitriol" in the township is not unlike what many people may see at the county level today.
"We got through that. We had to get into the depths to pull ourselves out," he said.
Clausi also asked Bartos and Dunkelberger how they plan to fix problems in the prothonotary office.
Bartos said she would immediately look at every account and study the office procedures to try to improve the operation.
"We'd like to have integrity" in the office, she said. "In order to have that, we need to be financially responsible and have a qualified candidate."
Dunkelberger said he's comfortable not having experience in the inner workings of the prothonotary office because, "Quite frankly, I think a lot of it's broken."
Leo Mirolli Jr., Republican candidate for coroner, said he wanted to discuss the positives, but said information about the coroner race was being "skewed" and he wanted to address it.
He said it's an inherent conflict of interest for a county coroner to be the owner of a funeral home, which his opponent, incumbent James F. Kelley, is. He also criticized Kelley's operation of the office as "stagnant" and said paperwork is a "disaster" that he will fix.
He said he would work for the taxpayers, but also work with the commissioners.
Kelley said it's unfortunate the campaign has involved people's personal lives.
"It is an extremely important race; however, we're not talking about running for president of the United States here," he said.
The election should be about credentials and what the candidates see for the future of the coroner's office, he said.
"I truly believe the most important aspect for this election to the coroner's office is experience. I feel in that category I far exceed my opponent," he said.
(More on Kelley and Mirolli in a separate story.)