Dunkelberger wants to rebuild efficiency
SHAMOKIN - Republican Justin Dunkelberger believes his "fresh set of eyes" and new ideas can help rebuild efficiency and create a positive financial bottom line in the Northumberland County prothonotary/clerk of courts office, which has been under considerable public scrutiny over the past couple years.
"I think being an outsider, so to speak, is going to be beneficial. I'm going to have
to ask tough questions of why this happened," he said. "I think when I get those answers we'll be able to more effectively make the changes that are needed."
Dunkelberger believes his business background, including his dealings with multinational corporations, a "good rapport" with the county commissioners and his familiarity with attorneys and court personnel prepare him for the job.
The 35-year-old Point Township resident is opposing Democratic candidate Meg Bartos, Mount Carmel, for the position, which is being vacated by the retiring Kathleen Strausser.
'Encouraged to run'
Dunkelberger, chief executive officer for wind turbine energy company Penn Wind LLC, which he founded in 2006 with three local partners, said "getting into politics as an elected leader was never his plan."
His engineering background, however, guided him toward public service, including as a Point Township supervisor for the past six years. While he's not seeking re-election to that post when his term expires this year, he hopes to stay in public office as prothonotary, for which he said he was "encouraged to run."
"I was contacted by someone with knowledge of the prothonotary office who encouraged me to do it," he said. He said that person was not Vinny Clausi, the outspoken county commissioner who has endorsed Dunkelberger. The candidate said he didn't want to say who called him.
Dunkelberger said he's not a career politician. He wants to stay in the prothonotary role for one term, maybe two, but that's likely it.
"I'm coming in to fix a bad situation and then go do something else," he said.
Office a "nightmare"
Dunkelberger said he's studied the numbers and the procedures for the prothonotary/clerk of courts and what he found concerns him.
"Quite frankly, the last nine months have been a nightmare for that office, publicly. My opinion is that it's been a train wreck for a lot longer," he said.
Strausser has made it known she's not happy with criticisms from Clausi and, where she acknowledges there are problems, has blamed cuts to her office for helping create them.
Dunkelberger, who's known Strausser for years but admitted their relationship has soured over his run for office, discussed the decline in criminal court cost collections and how the county moved the process to the adult probation office in August 2011.
"That really exposed some problems," Dunkelberger said.
He said collections have increased from approximately $400,000 to $1.5 million since the change was made. It's an indication that adult probation has done a great job, but he believes the collection role belongs with the clerk of courts for its proper set of checks and balances. If he wins, he said he'll talk to judges and commissioners about returning it.
More staff, revenue
Dunkelberger said he wants to bring back passport service, which was cut after commissioners forced Strausser to lay off an employee. That generated $25,000 a year, he said.
Dunkelberger said he wants to increase office staff, but he'll be sure he can first pay for it through increased revenue. Among the possibilities are for the prothonotary office to offer vehicle title and tag service.
"This office needs to be self-sufficient; it cannot be a drag on the general budget," he said.
Dunkelberger said he believes the salary, which after the controversial 2-1 vote from county commissioners will drop from $57,396 to $31,000 Jan. 1, is a "fair wage" for the work of the office. However, he said he may not always feel that way considering the larger role of holding public office and the scrutiny that comes with it.
He said he would have run regardless of the salary.
"It had nothing to do with money or salary or anything," he said.
He said the job, at its core, involves moving documents to where they are supposed to go, and that what's called for in those documents actually happens.
Dunkelberger said it's imperative to preserve historical documents and records currently cluttering the office in boxes or sitting vulnerable in the courthouse basement.
"They are only one pipe break away from being lost forever," he said. "We need to maintain them in a safer place."
He said the work could be done by prisoners as community service or perhaps by historical society volunteers.
Keep existing staff?
While Dunkelberger wouldn't commit to keeping all of the current staff, he noted they have a combined 70 years of experience.
"My plan is to come in and, in the first 60 days, observe, talk and learn what's going on. Talk to existing staff. Talk to other county officials. Talk to the register and recorder and see how we all interact."
He said he would use a transition team of volunteer advisers to meet with employees, independent of himself, to gather further input before making changes.
Among the staff is Dunkelberger's primary opponent, Jamie Saleski. Acknowledging the spring campaign got a bit nasty, Dunkelberger wouldn't commit one way or another about keeping her if he wins election.
"I don't know; that's about as honest as I can be," he said.
He believes the animosity between row officers and the commissioners began when the commissioners refused to grant pay increases to row office employees. Rather than work with the commissioners, attitudes went sour, he said.
"I think the last two years, evidenced by the last two weeks, there's just so much hate, vitriol and spite that it's getting in the way of good, effective government," Dunkelberger said.
Dunkelberger said he would remain as Penn Wind CEO because it offers him enough flexibility to serve as a row officer as well.
Plus, "Working 80-hour weeks, working on holidays, through sickness, kids - I'm used to it," he said.
The candidate, who has been involved in the community as a football and wrestling coach, is a native of Rockefeller Township and a graduate of Shikellamy High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Penn State University in 2001 and worked for Herbert, Rowland and Grubic Inc., State College, L. Robert Kimball in Harrisburg, and Mid-Penn Engineering, Lewisburg, prior to starting his own businesses.
Dunkelberger and his wife, Jayme, have two children, Caden, 4, and Caitlyn, 2.
In the last year, county commissioners appointed Dunkelberger to the SEDA-COG Foundation and Local Loan Review Board of Directors and the Northumberland County Industrial Development Authority Board of Directors, and returned him to the Northumberland County Planning Commission. He served two terms on the board of the Central Pennsylvania (formerly Milton) Chamber of Commerce and continues to serve with a number of community groups and boards.