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Prepping for the election

County officials can now move forward with the next step in preparing for the April primary election, as 58 new voting machines were delivered Thursday.

In December, Huntingdon County Commissioners approved a major purchase for 58 voting machines from Election Systems & Software (ES&S), as they are required by a state mandate, for a total of $583,757. This includes an additional $39,065 for the warranty, maintenance and support for the first year and an additional $11,845 for an extended warranty on the machines.

All 67 counties in the state were required by law, as a result of Act 77 of 2019, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, in which the state will provide a total of $90 million in funding to all counties to update all voting machines that include a paper trail.

The county is to receive 60% percent of the funding to pay for the machines from the state, and they will also receive an additional $43,000 from the federal government to pay for the machines.

This meant that despite the fact the previous voting machines in the Huntingdon County met all federal requirements of having a paper trail, they were decertified by the state, forcing the county to update.

Tammy Thompson, the county’s elections coordinator, explained the next step for training and making sure the machines will be ready for the Tuesday, April 28, primary.

“Next week, I will be doing software training for ballot programming,” she said. “Then, in mid-March, myself, along with other county employees, will have a more in-depth hardware training on the new machines.”

After county employees are trained, then Thompson noted that all poll workers will be trained with the new machines.

As far as what voters should expect on Election Day with the new machines, Thompson said it should be a seamless transition from the old to new machines.

“It will be very similar to what they remember,” she said. “The only differences will be the display screen that will tell you that your ballot has been filed will be bigger than before.”

In addition to purchasing 58 regular voting machines, 58 voting machines that are specifically designed for ADA accessibility will also be available for voters.

Thompson explained with those special machines, people will receive a smaller blank ballot they will insert into a machine, then voters will then make their choices on a screen, then the blank paper is printed with their voting choices.

After they print it out, the poll worker will insert it in a slot just above the regular ballot slot in the regular voting machine and will be counted.

She also noted the machines will likely be easier for poll workers to use.

“We value and appreciate all of the work they do on Election Day,” said Thompson. “These new machines will make it easier for them, so for that, we’re excited about (the new machines).”

Thompson said once all of the voting machines are prepped at the county office, they will be delivered to the 58 voting precincts in the county.

Planners approve self-storage addition

At the monthly meeting of the Huntingdon County Planning Commission Thursday, members approved comments for an addition to Strickler’s Self Storage on Fairgrounds Road in Smithfield Township.

The plans propose the construction of an additional 4,000-square-foot storage shed and an increase to the parking area on the property, amounting to a reported 26,000 square feet of earth disturbance. The property currently contains five identical storage sheds and one office structure.

Discussion of the plan began with a debate on the language of the fourth comment, which stated that the municipality may consider a waiver of subdivision and land development ordinance requirements concerning the inclusion of certain information/data on the application.

Stan Willis, planning technician, explained his reasoning for the language.

“It’s essentially a waiver that I put together for the municipalities to use,” Willis said.

“Oftentimes, the next two comments about putting in all significant manmade features and putting in all significant natural features. In writing that, I’m allowing the municipalities to say ‘well, you don’t have to put every rock and out-cropping in there, or every tree on the survey.”

Board member Larry Mutti had a concern, however.

“My concern is that, if engineers see this language, they’ll come in and say ‘Oh, well this wasn’t really important,’ when it isn’t for them to decide. It’s for the township to decide,” Mutti said. “…I like to put the onus on the developer to say, ‘this is why we haven’t provided this information,’ rather than encouraging the municipalities to ask for less information.”

It was ultimately decided to have Willis tweak the language of this comment to be more concise and clear in meaning, as to not lead to potential issues.

“What I’ve found in legal writing is that the more verbose you are, the more problems you have,” Willis said. “You really want to streamline it and make it more succinct…I think I did get a little verbose there, and I will cut that down to make it more succinct and comprehensive.”

Moving on from this discussion, one notable comment made on the plans involved the identification of several soil types present on the property. Two hydric soils, Atkins Silt Loam and Brinkerton Silt Loam, which are found at this location, indicate the presence of wetlands.

Members of the commission questioned the presence of wetlands in this area.

“I don’t think there are wetlands in that area,” said planning secretary Laurie Nearhood.

Mutti stated the potential presence of wetlands in the area demand attention.

“If there are any (wetlands), they should be identified,” Mutti said.

Ron Rabena, chairman of the board, also questioned the presence of the wetlands, stating he is unsure if wetlands existed “where they are.”

Mutti, however, reiterated the need for this concern to be confirmed.

“(The presence of a wetland) is not for us to decide, it is for them to show,” Mutti said. “It is up to them to show a wetland if it exists.”

Another notable comment dealt with the lack of parking requirements on the current plans, made in reference to the six proposed gravel parking spaces the plan clearly identifies.

Following this discussion, the comments, with the changes to the fourth comment, were unanimously approved.

Joshua can be reached at jblattenberger@huntingdondailynews.com.

Controlled burn to take place off Petersburg Pike

The state Game Commission will conduct a controlled burn of 62 acres east of Petersburg Pike this Sunday, Feb. 23.

“This burn will be to reduce fuel loading and for scrub oak management and to maintain the red-headed woodpecker habitat in the area. It’s a rare species,” said Brent McNeal, assistant regional forester and burn boss at the Game Commission. “We had two different clear cuts a while ago to promote scrub oak and the timber harvest left mostly big trees and woodpeckers started using those sites. They like open canopy and a large herbaceous understory. We’ll run a fire through it, which promotes the grass.”

Fuel is a fire unit terminology for any combustible material that can feed a fire, such as grass, leaves, ground litter, plants, shrubs and trees. Fuel loading is the amount of fuel in a given area.

“For any burn, one of the objectives is reducing fuel loading. That’s always a goal in every burn we do,” said McNeal.

The Game Commission conducts numerous controlled burns throughout the state in a given year.

Reducing fuel loading is crucial in preventing massive fires like the ones that engulfed Australia for months, starting in September.

“I’m not super familiar with the situation in Australia, but the same thing happens out West (in the U.S.). A lack of frequent fires causes fuel build-up, which is what creates these massive wildfires.”

Taking preemptive measures can keep a serious fire from turning into something much worse.

To do this, anchor points can be established, advantageous locations which are used as a barrier against fire spread, reducing the chance of firefighters being flanked by a fire.

“We actually had a big wildfire in Bedford County a few years ago where we had managed to establish some anchor points the year before. Without those anchor points we would have had to attack that in a much different way,” said McNeal.

The controlled burn off of Petersburg Pike will run from 9 a.m. until mid-afternoon Sunday. Signage and traffic control will also be in place.

Nathan can be reached at nwoods@huntingdondailynews.com.

Residents needed to complete survey

The consultant moving forward with the regional study of underserved and unserved areas for broadband is moving forward, which includes Huntingdon County, and part of that study includes a survey.

The Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission (SAP&DC) Regional Broadband Taskforce is asking residents of the six-county region, including Huntingdon, Blair, Bedford, Fulton, Cambria and Somerset Counties to fill out a survey as part of a feasibility study to determine areas that are not served or underserved by broadband internet in Huntingdon County.

In October 2019, SAP&DC was awarded $50,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission to conduct this feasibility study.

In this feasibility study, a consulting firm has been tasked to inventory existing broadband assets, identify gaps in service and to develop a plan for improving broadband services throughout the region.

Jeff Thomas, Huntingdon County Commissioner and chair of the SAP&DC Regional Broadband Taskforce, said the consulting firm hired for the study, Design 9, is moving ahead with the study.

“We’ll be meeting with them over the next couple of weeks,” he said.

He also emphasized the importance of as many people taking part in the survey to get an accurate picture of where underserved and unserved areas are for broadband internet in Huntingdon County and in the region.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance about the need for the public filling out the survey being distributed either online or by email,” said Thomas, noting that it will help support future grant applications that can fund improved broadband infrastructure in the region.

Broadband connectivity was identified as a critical issue in the six-county comprehensive plan, Alleghenies Ahead, that was officially adopted by all six counties under SAP&DC in 2018.

County residents who wish to take the survey can do so at https://tinyurl.com/BroadbandHOME.

Business owners can take a separate survey at https://tinyurl.com/BroadbandBiz.

If anyone would like a copy of the survey mailed to their home, they can contact Stacy LoCastro at 949-6510 or broadband@sapdc.org.

For more information about the SAP&DC Broadband Taskforce, visit their website at www.sapdc.org/broadband_task_force.

Public weighs in on MU plan

Around 40 audience members turned out Thursday night for the second, and last, of two public Q&A sessions devoted to the Mount Union Area School District’s proposed reconfiguration of its elementary program. Transportation issues, enrollment projections and student morale again topped the list of concerns shared by parents.

Superintendent Dr. Amy Smith and fellow administrators propose moving all kindergarten through second grade students to the Mount Union-Kistler building and all third through fifth grade students to the Shirley Township building. The proposal includes the closure and sale of Mapleton-Union Elementary School.

The board is schedule to vote the issue at March 30 meeting.

“I don’t think it’s the best decision,” parent Melissa Henry said. “If something isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

She said if the decision is made to close Mapleton, the district should consult with taxpayers on what to do with funds from the sale.

“We could use that money for other things and the community ought to be involved,” she said. “That’s our tax money.”

Henry added she feels most students will adjust to whatever changes lies ahead with their schools.

“Children are resilient and they will get through it,” she said.

Lee Forgy is a bus driver for the district but spoke Thursday as a taxpayer, and asked the district to hold off on selling the Mapleton school, should the reconfiguration plan pass. Forgy said building is an asset to the district and would be perhaps $10-20 million to replace if the district found itself in need of space.

Forgy said he also sees the Mapleton school, if put on the market, as a potential charter school location.

“What happens if a charter school moves in?” he asked. “That’s still our tax dollars.”

Superintendent Dr. Amy Smith said the district has no control over where a charter locates and that one might as easily move into the former Mount Union elementary school which is vacant.

“A charter school could move into any property in Mount Union,” she said.

Parent Jen Randoll said her son struggles with transitions and asked if its really necessary to create another transition year for students, as they move from second to third grade — a move that might be especially hard for special needs children.

“It’s not fair to the kids,” she said.

Dr. Dianne Thomas, director of special education, said district offers a strong program for its special needs students.

“I do not have reservations about the transitions,” she said.

Michele Grove, principal at Mount Union-Kistler, said the plan will allow the district to pool its age-appropriate resources and therefore, great stronger programs for all of its early elementary students and all of its intermediate students.

Chris Corbin, president of Mapleton Borough Council, questioned the district’s enrollment projections and said early census figures show Huntingdon County is looking at a possible 18.5% increase in population; Mifflin County, too, is also looking at a possible population increase.

Carol Kauffman, MUASD’s business director, said she reviewed census information as well and noticed it projects a decrease in the counties’ birth rates. Audience members questioned whether those numbers could be swayed by the local hospital closing its maternity unit.

Patty Veitch, parent, asked district officials to address a rumor that teachers aren’t allowed to share their opinions on the proposal directly with board members.

Smith dispelled the rumor, saying as superintendent she has no issue with employees speaking to board members about the proposal. She said the Pennsylvania School Boards Association doesn’t recommend it, however, a position that may have led to confusion on whether teachers could or could not talk to board members.

Parent Michelle Price questioned the purpose of the district’s public discussions, saying Smith seems to have her mind made up about the reconfiguration.

Board member Andrea Christoff clarified that the board, not administrators, will make the final determination on the proposal. She said the discussion session where held for the board’s benefit, as much as the public’s, to help them consider different perspectives as they each develop their positions.

“My mind is not made up,” Christoff said. “We have nine board members and we are the ones who are going to have to make this very difficult decision,” Christoff said. “We are not taking this lightly.”

Thursday’s meeting opened with a review of answers to questions posed by the public at the special session held Jan. 29.

Kauffman reviewed busing schedules, pointing out that once the district has all its information about the incoming kindergarten class in hand, they can fine tune the schedule. Until such time, Kauffman said the current version of the schedule as shared Thursday represents the “worst case scenarios” for busing to and from the schools.

Enrollment over the past five years shows a decline in the district’s elementary student population, from 674 total students in kindergarten through fifth grade during the 2014-15 year to 574 student this current year. Projections indicate the elementary population will hold fairly steady between now and the 2025-26 school year.

At present, elementary students are divided among the three schools as follows: roughly 230 at Mount Union-Kistler, 260 at Shirley Township and 80 at Mapleton-Union.

Maureen Hockenberry, former Shirley Township principal and current senior high school principal, reviewed several potential drawbacks as identified by teachers saying that, as Randoll later noted, the reconfiguration creates another transition year for students as they move from second into third grade.

“Now right, the big transition is from fifth to sixth grade when the move to the junior high,” Hockenberry said.

Hockenberry said teachers reports concerns over gym space, saying Mount Union-Kistler, because of its facilities, might make a better location for the intermediate grades.

Michele Grove, principal at Mount-Kistler, reported on how the district will group students to help ease the stress on the youngest students as they get acclimated to a new school.

Grove said as always, for the schools that have more than one classroom per grade, they will find the best mix of students per room by looking at academics, personalities and other such factors.

She said while parents and students may mourn the loss of the existing communities that have developed at each of the schools, the reconfiguration creates opportunity for new relationships and friendships.

The reconfiguration plan was first presented to the board at a building and grounds committee meeting in November. A state-mandated public hearing was held in December, following by the two Q&A sessions. At each meeting, the audience has been divided fairly evenly between parents and teachers.

“Everyone has been given opportunity to ask questions,” Smith said, adding the district will still field questions leading up to the board’s March vote.

Smith said she understands some parents’ apprehension but also believes the plan will yield more advantages for students than challenges.

“I’m looking at it from an educational perspective and believe it’s what’s best for the district,” she said. “I hope everyone understands that I do care about the district and about what’s best for our students. We wouldn’t be promoting the plan if I felt it was detrimental to students.”

Rebecca can be reached at dnews@huntingdondailynews.com.

USDA grant would improve police safety

Huntingdon Borough Council recently approved the application for a apply for a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant that would provide the borough’s police force with in-car police cameras, electric bicycles and a UTV.

“We’re one of the few police departments that don’t have dashboard cameras yet,” said Huntingdon borough manager Chris Stevens, noting the potential hassle they could save.

“The suspect’s saying one thing and we’re saying another and the cameras cut that out. It tends to lower lawsuits and complaints. In fact, a lot of civilians have dashboard cams now. The federal government is pushing for officers to have body cams but they haven’t found a way to fund that yet,” he said.

As for the electric bicycles, they would replace the current, much older models which police officers ride primarily in town.

“Those are regular bikes. We just had them serviced so you will see more of them this spring and summer. The new bikes would be electric-assisted mountain bikes which could be used to patrol trails in the area,” said Stevens.

He explained that applying for the grant makes sense since the borough is planning on investing in the trails in the borough.

“We’re looking to be putting a lot of money into trails system and trying to tie them into local parks. The UTV and electric-assisted bikes fit into that plan. The UTV could be used for more than just patrolling. It would come with a stokes basket and if someone were to get injured on the trails it would have first aid applications,” said.

The borough will face stiff competition for the USDA statewide and regional partnerships grant, but it’s worth the effort of applying.

“This is a grant we found out about last minute, and it’s highly competitive. It’s a wing and a prayer to get it honestly, but if we have a chance we’re going to go for it,” said Stevens.

Nathan can be reached at nwoods@huntingdondailynews.com.