Although not running as a team, Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas said he believes he and fellow Democrat Gina Cerilli share common goals and hopes they are successful in returning their party to power in the general election.
Kopas met with members of the Tribune-Review editorial board and talked about reining in county spending, increasing efforts to curb the drug epidemic in Westmoreland County and the future of the Democratic Party.
That future, he said, includes him and Cerilli in the commissioners’ office.
Cerilli is a political newcomer who finished first in May’s Democratic primary. Kopas, who took office in 2010, finished second. He is seeking his second full term.
The two Democrats will face Republican incumbents Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney in the fall general election. Of those four candidates, only the three top vote-getters will take office in January.
“We will absolutely be coordinating (campaigns),” said Kopas, who stopped short of saying the two are running as a team. “I believe Gina Cerilli is part of the solution, but I don’t believe we need to be in lock step. We will both be doing our own things, but she is part of the solution.”
Cerilli has repeatedly said she would run a campaign independent of other candidates, and on Thursday she reaffirmed her position to go it alone.
She said she would not join her campaign with Kopas’ but said she generally supports all Democratic candidates.
“I’ve chosen from day one to run an independent campaign. I don’t want to burden the party with my personal beliefs,” Cerilli said, noting her endorsement from a pro-life group and her support of Second Amendment rights.
Kopas said he envisions the two Democrats coordinating efforts, although conceded it was doubtful they would fully engage in a combined campaign.
“I will be running on my merits,” Kopas said.
County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Lorraine Petrosky said party officials see the candidates working together in some fashion. They share office space at the party’s new headquarters in Greensburg and are expected to appear together at events through the campaign season, she said.
“We are coordinating with Gina and Ted, and I can’t see that changing. They are setting their own courses, but with the same goal,” Petrosky said.
Anderson and Courtney are running a joint campaign. They appear together in campaign literature and in videos touting their efforts as the GOP majority at the courthouse.
Kopas said the majority commissioners have plunged the county into difficult financial straits. Revenues have remained flat while the county’s $330 million budget carries a nearly $6 million deficit that has been balanced by taking cash from a surplus that was once more than $41 million and is now just $16 million, he said.
“There is no simple solution. It is the bits and pieces,” Kopas said.
He criticized the Republican commissioners for their budget choices, privatizing the county’s human resource office at what Kopas said was financial loss and the costs involved with paying settlements to fired county employees.
Kopas defended his recent votes to support budget increases and personnel additions to the county sheriff’s office, two items that were approved, despite the objections of Anderson and Courtney.
Kopas said he believes the additional staff will enable the sheriff’s department to serve more warrants and as a result, generate more revenue for the county.
He said he would not support any effort to reassess properties in Westmoreland County even though it has one of the oldest systems in the state that relies on 1973 cost-of-construction values.
Reassessment would be too costly and would not completely correct imbalances in the system, he said.
“I can’t support it until there is a mechanism to routinely update those values. The day after those (reassessed) numbers are completed they are out of date,” Kopas said.
Efforts to contain the burgeoning drug epidemic is a top priority. Kopas, along with the other commissioners, sit on a task force that has worked for the last several years to devise programs to educate the public about the problem.
He said creation of a new drug court expected to begin later this year and providing the anti-overdose drug Narcan to first-responders is a good initial step.
Kopas suggested county dollars could be allocated to fund other programs.
“At the end of the day, county government is about service,” Kopas said.
Kopas said he supports Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale drillers and said that plan is not much different from the current system that imposes impact fees. Those fees are expected to generate about $2 million in revenue for the county this year.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or [email protected].