Dems seize control of Centre County Board of Commissioners

Centre County commissioner Michael Pipe and newly elected commissioner Mark Higgins watch the polling results come in on Tuesday.
Centre County commissioner Michael Pipe and newly elected commissioner Mark Higgins watch the polling results come in on Tuesday. CDT photo

After monthslong debates over economic development and government transparency, the Centre County Board of Commissioners flipped to a Democratic majority Tuesday night with the election of Democrats Michael Pipe and Mark Higgins, and Republican Steve Dershem.

Pipe led with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Higgins with a little more than 23 percent and Dershem with almost 23 percent, according to preliminary results.

Their victories came against two other candidates: Chris Exarchos, a Republican incumbent , and Todd Kirsten, an independent.

Pipe has served one four-year term as commissioner and Dershem has served three consecutive terms as commissioner. Higgins is a newcomer to the board with experience as a business-turnaround specialist.

“I’ve done this kind of stuff for 32 years, walking into places that need the outside perspective, who need somebody that’s willing to work hard and approach it with a blank slate,” Higgins said. “It’s just that now I’m going to do it at a little bigger scale than usual.”

With two incumbents being re-elected, Pipe said he is looking forward to Higgins’ fresh perspective.

“I am excited that Mark is going to be joining me on the Board of Commissioners,” Pipe said.

“I’m excited about the new energy he’s going to bring in and to look at better ways that we can create jobs and opportunities for Centre County.”

The newly elected commissioners will be put immediately to the test if the state budget does not pass soon. Without aid from the state, commissioners will eventually have to decide where to cut costs.

“We need a little bit more responsibility on the fiscal side to make sure that we’re maximizing every dollar that the taxpayers provide,” Dershem said. “We’re going into our fourth month without a state budget, and if we didn’t have a strong fund balance … we would not be able to provide the services that our citizens expect.”

If the state budget passes and the commissioners have funds to disburse, economic development will be a bipartisan area of focus.

Last year, Higgins was asked by the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County to research what could be done to improve the economic climate for entrepreneurs in the county. He researched how much other counties of a similar size spent in economic development and discovered a large disparity.

Centre County currently invests only $25,000 annually into economic development, compared to an average of $1,177,000 for similarly sized counties.

“If the county works with regional, state and federal grants, we can triple the amount of money the county puts in,” Higgins said. “Eighty-seven percent of the jobs in this county come from government spending.”

Nearly 30 percent of the county’s tax dollars are dedicated to the operations of the county’s correctional facility and Probation and Parole Office.

Government transparency has also been in the spotlight since District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller filed a lawsuit against Centre County over the Right-to-Know Act.

Pipe said he plans to enact initiatives to improve transparency, including redesigning the county’s website to make information more accessible and engaging with constituents through social media.

Transparency was slightly muddled earlier in the election after questionable fundraising was brought to light.

The solicitor for the county board of elections and for the commissioners, Louis Glantz, stepped down temporarily after Glantz co-sponsored a fundraiser for Dershem and Exarchos in September.

Dershem said he is not deterred in seeking improvements in transparency.

“(Transparency) is a huge issue all the time, not just in this election,” Dershem said. “I’m a huge advocate of the Right-to-Know law and certainly I’ve supported every measure of transparency throughout my terms.”

Pipe graduated from Penn State in 2009 with a degree in political science. Before serving as a commissioner, Pipe worked as an assistant manager in a State College restaurant. Pipe also is a graduate of Leadership Centre County.

Higgins works at Link Computer Co. and has been as a turnaround specialist for 30 years. He has served on a workforce development committee for CBICC and also is a graduate of Leadership Centre County. Higgins also mentors four Penn State student startups.

Dershem has served on the Board of Commissioners since January 2004. As a commissioner, he has served on the county prison, salary, retirement and finance and elections boards. He is in his eighth year as vice chair of the Criminal Justice Advisory Board.