‘I think we made the right calls’

Venango County’s youngest-ever board of commissioners is now six months into was has certainly been an eventful time in office.

“Everything was exactly as expected,” Sam Breene, the commissioners chairman, said with a laugh. “We were fully aware there would be an international pandemic and economic fallout and massive civil unrest.”

Newcomers Breene and Mike Dulaney joined second-term commissioner Albert Abramovic on the panel in January, and the two fresh faces said their greatest challenge during their first six months has obviously been the coronavirus pandemic.

“With the pandemic there was no playbook. It was liberating, we were able to bring people together to make the best decisions for Venango County,” Breene said.

Dulaney agreed.

“We had to write one (a playbook) on the fly. Looking back, I think we made the right calls,” Dulaney said.

The commissioners had stopped discretionary spending before the county was placed in shutdown mode, Dulaney said.

“We prepared with plans A to D. We respected the issue early on and took steps to make sure it didn’t get into the jail or the nursing homes,” Breene said.

The commissioners also assembled a COVID-19 response team and gathered every department head and elected official for long meetings to prepare for the virus fallout, Breene said.

The question was how to protect people and keep businesses open, Breene said. Then Gov. Tom Wolf ordered his various shutdowns starting with schools and continuing with many businesses.

“Even if I didn’t completely agree with every decision that was made, every evening I left confident that we had made the best decision given the information that we had,” Breene said as he reflected on the numerous meetings that sometimes lasted until 9 or 10 p.m.

Dulaney and Breene noted that Venango County was lucky to be affected by the virus after there were models to study to help determine the best practices for handling the pandemic.

They also noted that UPMC was well prepared for the virus early on and that Brian Durniok, the president of UPMC Northwest, was accessible and has partnered with them during the pandemic.

In the midst of the pandemic, the primary election brought the “biggest changes to election law in state history,” Breene said.

“Sabrina (Backer, the chief clerk) did the work. I would have been way more worried if we hadn’t dealt with so much already,” Breene said.

The primary date was moved from April 28 to June 2 because of the pandemic.

“I’m thankful for those five or six extra weeks. Some of the rules were only for the election in June. We had time to sit down and prepare, we were already dealing with the pandemic,” Dulaney said.

Breene said that when the county reached out to other counties to get advice, they often found they were ahead of the other counties.

“We have a heck of a team, we were stressed but made the right calls,” Breene said. “Venango County has been an example of how to do a lot of things. The citizens of the county adapted to the guidelines. I couldn’t be prouder of our team and of our county,” he added.

Another area where the commissioners found they were ahead of other counties and the state was in extending the county tax deadline.

“The tax extensions were important to me. I knew it was only a drop in the bucket and the county would lose some revenue but it was in the interest of tax payers. It worked out well,” Breene said.

When the commissioners voted to extend the deadline, the state was beginning to discuss doing the same thing and state Rep. R. Lee James asked for a copy of the county’s proclamation, Breene said. At that point no one know the CARES stimulus money was coming.

COVID-19 also expedited finding a way to bring all the Venango County jail inmates back to Venango County from the Butler County jail, an issue everyone at the county agreed needed attended to, Breene said.

“We made some phone calls and brought everyone to the table. We commissioners didn’t do the talking. Everyone came, set aside their differences and figured it out,” Breene said.

Looking ahead, one of the challenges will be managing the CARES funds the county will receive, Breene said. The commissioners are still waiting on the specific rules as to how they can spend the CARES funding.

Breene said they are looking to be proactive and to bring parties to the table to strategize how to get the best use out of the money.

The commissioners are considering questions such as how to protect the county budget to keep from having to raise taxes in the future and how to use the money for infrastructure for rural broadband, Breene said.

Improving rural broadband access would improve 911 coverage and emergency response times as well as enable students who currently have poor internet connection or no internet connection to access the internet for remote learning, Breene said.

Another concern, the commissioners said, will be the economy.

Breene said the key question is “What can we do to help businesses recover?”

Breene and Dulaney noted that having three full-time commissioners has also been an advantage in dealing with a pandemic and other challenges over the past six months.

“We are all full-time commissioners, none of us have other jobs. We had no excuse not to spend as much time as we had to on problems,” Breene said.

They also added that another advantage is that they are friends and get along, making it easier to work together and make decisions as a team.

Breene and Dulaney said the goal of all three commissioners is to be accessible and transparent.

“We are willing to sit down with anyone to solve a problem,” Breene said. “If we don’t know something we will say that we don’t know.”

“When you hear from the small municipalities you know you are doing the right thing,” Dulaney said.

Dulaney and Breene said that through everything their priorities and goals as commissioners haven’t really changed.

“Our priorities have not changed that much – the jail, broadband access, 911 upgrades. COVID forced everyone to work through things quicker,” Dulaney said. “We didn’t come in to office with an agenda other than what is best for Venango County,” he added.

Breene agreed, saying their priorities were more of guiding principles saying one of their chief principles being how to best serve the taxpayers of Venango County.

Backer said when Dulaney and Breene first took office they were “actively learning everything possible.”

“There is a lot to take in when you get here. For us it was a trial by fire with the virus,” Dulaney said. “The employees have been great. They were interested in letting us know what they do,” he added.

“I don’t feel unprepared for the job. I’m exactly where I need to be in life, where God wants me to be,” Breene said. “We have a great team of people at the county. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have an answer for every question because someone else does.”

Abramovic, who has helped Breene and Dulaney with his four years of experience, said “aside from COVID-19 it has been a really good six months. We are getting a lot done and have a good working relationship. I am optimistic about the future.”