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County commissioners: Body cams coming to Centre County prison, new hotel tax is official

More surveillance is coming to the Centre County prison — in the form of body cameras for correctional officers and lieutenants.

Warden Christopher Schell said the prison will be entering into a five-year contract with Axon Enterprise to provide body cameras to correctional officers and lieutenants. The $31,101 contract includes equipment maintenance, software licensing and replacement body cameras every 30 months.

“This is really about officer safety and inmate safety,” Commissioner Steve Dershem said. “It allows both groups to function together in a comfortable environment ... with the knowledge that if there is something going on that we’ll have a record of it ... and be able to review it and make better decisions.”

Prison administration has been testing different body cameras for a year on durability, recording quality and functionality, said Schell. This is the first time the Centre County prison will introduce body cameras.

The body cameras continuously record in 30-second intervals without audio. When an incident with an inmate is unfolding, Schell said, an officer double taps the camera to start recording, and that “event” recording will also include the 30-second non-audio recording before the officer pushed the button.

“The biggest thing is even when we have an incident inside the jail ... cameras can (only) see so much,” Schell said. “However, we can’t see inside the cell so if an officer’s in the cell or we have to do an extraction at any given time” officers are wearing body cameras to ensure incidents can be recorded and learned from.

Pennsylvania law says that video recording of incidents can only be obtained after an official investigation has been completed, or when the footage would not compromise a law enforcement investigation. Schell said every incident will be reviewed by prison administration and they will decide whether to release it.

Hotel tax moves forward

After just two months of public deliberation, the Centre County commissioners approved an increase of the hotel tax from 2.5 percent to 5 percent.

In December, Fritz Smith, president of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said an increased hotel occupancy tax could garner $137 million in new visitor revenue and add 320 new hospitality jobs in the county.

The CPCVB distributes part of the revenue it receives from the hotel tax to local nonprofits that attract visitors to Centre County. At least 40 nonprofits, including the Aaronsburg Civic Club, Mountain Top Swimming Pool Association, Bellefonte Art Museum and Friends of the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, received funding from the CPCVB generated through the hotel tax last year, said Dershem.

Not only does the new ordinance allow for more revenue to come to Centre County tourism and nonprofits, but it allows for a larger administrative processing fee, which saves the county a general fund expense, said Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Pipe.

Centre County, home of Penn State, had the lowest hotel tax among the 14 Big 10 schools in the nation, said Commissioner Mark Higgins. Even with the increased hotel tax, the school will still have the 13th lowest hotel tax in that pool.

Joe Soloski, a resident of Halfmoon Township who is also running for county commissioner this year, said he thinks the commissioners should come out against the hotel tax because it’s “nothing more than a tax grab.”

Even though commissioners said county residents won’t be paying the tax, Soloski said, businesses or organizations who want to host conventions in town might be looking at higher costs, which don’t help the economy in the long run.

“I think any time there’s an increase tax passed, government gets bigger, costs go up, spending goes up, it’s not what I see good government being,” he said.

The new hotel tax will go into effect April 1.

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