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Sen. Casey holds roundtable talk in Jeannette |

Sen. Casey holds roundtable talk in Jeannette

| Thursday, August 17, 2017 7:09 p.m.
Stephen Huba | Tribune-Review
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., listens to Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2015, during a roundtable discussion on economic development held at the Elliott Group in Jeannette. Also pictured are (from left) Jason Rigone of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp.; Dr. Sharon Smith, president of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg; and Brother Norman Hipps, president of St. Vincent College.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey told a group of Westmoreland County business and government leaders Thursday that he will take their concerns about potential losses in federal funding back to Washington.

“I’m here mostly to listen and learn,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said at an economic development roundtable discussion held at the Elliott Group in Jeannette.

Looming large at the meeting were President Trump’s proposals to cut the federal budget, including Community Development Block Grants that communities rely on for everything from infrastructure improvements to blight removal.

“Those cuts would have an exponential impact on our communities,” said Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas.

“It’s vitally important that the federal government continues to fund these grants,” said Jeannette Mayor Richard Jacobelli. “Our community relies on them.”

Participants in the roundtable cited losses in funding, the opioid epidemic, crumbling infrastructure and population declines as their chief concerns.

But Casey said he saw a silver lining.

“There’s a lot of good happening here,” he said. “They’ve got a good manufacturing base. … The educational institutions are strong. There are a lot of pieces in place to develop a strong economy. But like any community, they’re going to need help at the federal and state level.”

On the subject of opioid abuse, Casey said the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act has not been fully funded but needs to be.

“The opioid crisis has consumed a lot communities. In every county I’ve been in, it’s the same,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Colleen Hughes, executive director of the Westmoreland Drug & Alcohol Commission, stressed the importance of Medicaid for treatment programs.

“If the Medicaid expansion goes away, it will be very detrimental to drug and alcohol work,” she said.

Upon learning that the commission had applied for CARA funding, Casey joked, “It’s better I argue against your proposal. You’re more likely to get it.”

Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce President Chad Amond said Westmoreland County’s population has dropped by 40,000 since the 1980s, which has implications for manufacturers and other employers.

“We need to retain more of our college students,” he said, noting that 30 percent of the population is 65 and older.

Jim Smith, president of the Westmoreland County Economic Growth Connection, said the county’s manufacturing workforce has suffered from population declines.

“This is still a place where we make things. … It is absolutely critical that we find qualified workers who can work in our factories,” he said.

Brother Norman Hipps, president of St. Vincent College, and Sharon Smith, president of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, stressed the importance of full funding for the Pell grants that students rely on for tuition expenses.

Hipps said St. Vincent wants to attract more international students, but “the current administration is not international student-friendly.”

“I think that’s an understatement,” Casey said.

Earlier in the day, Casey visited the Shell ethane cracker plant that’s under construction in Beaver County. He left Jeannette for a stop in Johnstown before returning to Scranton.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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