Centre requests special election on ‘primary’ day

BELLEFONTE — The Centre County Commissioners have spoken – and their opinions about how to fill the vacant seat in the 12th District are on their way to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners approved a letter asking that Wolf set the special election for Tuesday, May 21. That, of course, is the same day as Pennsylvania’s primary election.

“The governor has the latitude to set that date and I think many of the commissioners within the 12th Congressional District really would recommend he set that as the same day as the primary,” Commissioner Chairman Michael Pipe said. “It would help us to save on costs, with mobilizing our poll workers, making sure our election machines aren’t being used for another election.”

The item was not originally on Tuesday’s agenda, but Pipe brought the issue up shortly before the consent items.

Pipe, along with commissioners Mark Higgins and Steve Dershem, unanimously agreed to send a letter to Wolf officially making the request.

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino announced last week – just days into his fifth term in the house – that he would be stepping down today. According to Marino, he is resigning to take a job in the private sector.

Filling the seat is now in the hands of the governor. Wolf has 10 days to issue a writ of election and set a special election to take place no less than 60 days later.

Pipe said that “other counties are on board with this.”

Higgins agreed with that assessment.

“The Clinton County commissioners had a discussion about this and they’re very much in favor of holding the special election on the same day as the 2019 primary election … I believe their extra costs for a special election was estimated at $30,000. I suspect our costs to run a special election would be a couple of times that,” Higgins said.

In Centre County, the 12th District includes State College, Ferguson Township, Harris Township, College Township, part of Halfmoon Township and the Penns Valley area. Overall, the 12th District includes portions of: Centre, Bradford, Clinton, Juniata, Lycoming, Mifflin, Northumberland, Perry, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Union and Wyoming counties.

According to Pipe, there is precedent for holding special elections. He said that when Rep. Pat Meehan resigned from his 7th District seat in 2018, Wolf scheduled the special election to coincide with the November general election.

Ferguson Township Democrat Marc Friedenberg, who lost to Marino in November, has said he will seek his party’s nomination for the special election. Other potential candidates include State Rep. Fred Keller, of Snyder County. He said he is interested in pursuing the Republican nomination. Another name to look for is Northumberland County Commissioner Kymberley Best. She said she is considering a run for the Democratic nomination.

“This would save the money and not put the burden on our staff,” Pipe said of holding the election on May 21.

The other big item on Tuesday’s agenda was the much-discussed hotel room tax. A second draft of the tax was presented to the commissioners. The first ordinance of 2019 will increase the hotel tax in Centre County from 2.5 percent to 5 percent – the maximum allowed by the state.

The commissioners have discussed the increase since late last year. The second draft of the ordinance will be posted for 10 days and will be brought back to the commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

One concern throughout the process has been how the hotel occupancy tax could include short-term rental booking services such as Airbnb – most aren’t currently subject to the fee – as well as campgrounds at state parks.

According to Centre County administrator Margaret Gray, those concerns have been addressed in the latest version of the ordinance.

“We’ve gone back and made some adjustments. We’ve made some revisions to the ordinance,” Gray said.

According to the ordinance, if any third-party company – such as Airbnb – does not pay the fee, there would be a penalty. Pennsylvania Act 109 of 2018 determined that outside booking agents’ accommodation fees should be taxed the same as hotels.

“(Registering) is effective today, essentially. That’s one of the things we are very closely monitoring … if any of those Airbnb – whatever they are – will contact our treasurer to start that. We may start to collect fees in the next few months. That’s an important thing to note,” Pipe said.

The money generated from the increased tax will go toward generating more tourism in the area by the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau. At the present time, Centre County has the second-lowest hotel tax in the state.

Pipe said that he’s pleased with the progress the county is making as far as the tax is concerned.

“From the way we’ve gotten all the way from ordinance No. 2 of 1997 … fast forward 22 years to ordinance No. 1 of 2019, so much has changed in terms of the market. This ordinance does a really good job of trying to capture as much as possible in terms of the fairness of the fees, in terms of leveling the playing field,” Pipe said. “This is really a good step forward.”

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