Oct. 17, 2019

HAZLETON — Area residents have to change the way they think about education to keep young people here, a state representative says.
State Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116, Drums, told a Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce Red Carpet Breakfast crowd at Rocco’s on Hazleton Heights the days of young people getting a four-year college degree no longer offer the same opportunity that pursuing a career like those offered at Hazleton Area Career Center.

“There is a lot we have to do to be more innovative with education,” Toohil said. “We are looking at drone technology. We just need one teacher in the school district to get educated in drone technology. We totally pass off agriculture, even though it is a large part of this district. Our kids don’t know what a farm is like. We are missing on robotics.

“The untapped potential of Hazleton Area High School is crazy. Look at the amount of students, the sheer manpower, brain power and human potential. It’s on us to educate them and tap that untapped human potential.”

Hazle Twp. Fire Chief Scott Kostician had an immediate suggestion for new curriculum at the career center.

“It’s been in the newspaper. The fire service is facing a huge crisis with volunteers,” Kostician said, referring to a series of stories that appeared in the Standard-Speaker this week. “How about putting a fire science program together for the school district and doing a co-op, where we get some students in the firehouses as volunteers? You talked about agriculture being lost. Once they hit 16 and get a driver’s license and they’re working part-time to get insurance, we lose them. If we don’t recruit them at 14 and 15, we’ll never get a volunteer. It’s becoming harder and harder. Something like this would be huge to try to get some young people back in the volunteer fire service.”

Toohil responded, “I love it. You guys like that idea?” The audience applauded.

New jobs

There are opportunities to create more jobs in the area, Toohil said.

She talked about a bill she authored that was approved by the state House of Representatives 197-2 to create a registry to brownfield sites — land already scarred, perhaps by mining — so that developers looking for new industrial sites can see those available in this area on a map. That bill is now in the state Senate.

“We will create a more extensive registry so that we can better promote ourselves,” Toohil said. “We still have to communicate when a big company leaves and we have an abandoned site. We’re going to make sure it gets listed and be actively involved in that. Instead of taking up beautiful green space and taking down trees, we actually have spaces that have the infrastructure right there. We will be working with the Chamber and CAN DO.”

As an example, she said a new natural gas plant that will produce electricity — built near the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station nuclear plant in Salem Twp.— has done a lot for the community there.

“This company came in from New York and invested just shy of $1 billion on this plant to produce electricity for 900,000 homes,” she said. “The owner had $800,000 pledged to the local fire department and charities. The reason they picked that location is because of the infrastructure. There wasn’t a lot of environmental impact. It would be great if we picked a brownfield site in our area and be able to generate that revenue. Salem Twp. is going to do their own property tax rent rebate. That’s something we dream for all of our communities because we have this investment and this huge company come in and we’re generating and promoting electricity. We’re going to be able to give back more to the people that live in that area.”

Property tax reform

“The No. 1 call we still get at the office is about the property tax issue,” Toohil said “There are a couple of ideas. The community hardest hit is seniors who are widowers. They lost one income, and had no planning for their pension or 401K.”

One bill would give a property owner over 65 or a widower a $1,000 increase in their property tax rebate.

“It would be helpful to keep those people in their homes,” she said. “There is another bill that would provide an optional senior freeze at the level of a local municipality.”

Toohil has also proposed a property tax freeze.

“School districts would not be able to increase the property taxes on those individuals over 65 who have been residents of community for over 20 years,” she said. “One bill would enable school districts to exclude 100% of the homeowners’ price. Another bill allows senior citizens to be volunteers to get more of a rebate. They could be helpers in the schools, but they won’t be punished for being over the property tax rebate they got for paying their taxes on time.”

Replacing property taxes with a combined sales and personal income tax that would provide about the same income isn’t palatable to wealthy areas of the state, Toohil said.

“We would have to generate $50 billion just in school property tax,” Toohil said. ”One of the biggest problems is that Pennsylvania is such a diverse state. There are extremely wealthy parts of the state that don’t want anything to do with it. Then you have very conservative members who will not vote for it at all and some who will vote for it if it is revenue neutral.”