Pipe: Plenty of county issues to look at
By CHRIS MORELLI
BELLEFONTE — When Michael Pipe was first elected as a Centre County commissioner, he was the youngest person in the Commonwealth to hold that title.
At the time, he was 25. Now, he’s 33 and the chair of the Board of Commissioners. Pipe is aiming for his third term as commissioner. He’s running in the primary election alongside fellow Democrat Mark Higgins. The two are unopposed on the Democratic ticket.
Recently, Pipe sat down with The Express at a Bellefonte donut shop to discuss his accomplishments, where Centre County is headed and his future goals.
In 2011, Pipe made a name for himself by running for commissioner in a contested race, which he won. He followed that with a resounding victory alongside Higgins in 2015.
“This time is really the best of both worlds,” Pipe said. “We’re not only uncontested, but we’re also incumbents.”
Pipe said that he’s focused on several items in this campaign – safer communities, a strong local economy and more services. He said that the three current commissioners work extremely well together and is hopeful that the group will remain intact when the new term rolls around.
“We want to make sure we get consensus from everyone around the table. Unlike Washington and Harrisburg, where you’ve got hundreds of people you have to get together, the thing about local government is that we can really make an impact with just the three commissioners moving the ball down the field,” Pipe said.
As chair, Pipe knows he has an extremely vital role on the board of commissioners.
“In other counties where the relationship is not as cordial and productive, the chair can sometimes misread their role and think it’s ‘my way or the highway and you do what I say.’ I find the role of chair is to step and see what my two colleagues are saying, what the staff is saying. If there’s a clear mandate, I just say ‘OK, let’s go in that direction. If there’s not, then I have to be that deciding vote. That’s the approach I take. That’s my mentality – leading through consensus,” Pipe said.
There are plenty of county issues that Pipe said the commissioners will need to take a closer look at. Not only for the remainder of 2019, but beyond.
“As we look into the future, criminal justice reform is still going to be a big issue. There’s the heroin/opioid epidemic, the reduction of folks that we have in our correctional facility, working with our probation office to give them better ways that they can be working with their caseloads as we have more individuals in our probation system,” Pipe said.
As for the heroin/opioid epidemic, Pipe said that Centre County is attacking the problem on many different levels. The county, he said, employs prescription drop boxes and a fully-functional Drug Court and has hired more caseworkers.
“There needs to be a compassionate viewpoint. You’re not just going to shake somebody out of addiction. It’s going to be through recognizing that they’re harming themselves, harming others and then getting them treatment and showing them that there is a better way to live their life,” he said.
Pipe said that he’d like to see the county use data to get a handle on the problem.
“One thing we’re going to work on in the future is collecting data to see where the overdoses are occurring. Where are we seeing more prevalent issues with addiction and then getting services out to those areas. It’s a multi-faceted approach,” Pipe said.
There are also several capital projects down the road for Centre County. Among those is the potential re-use of Centre Crest in Bellefonte, which will be vacant once the new Centre Care facility is built in State College.
“That’s going to be a big thing in the future. As we get later into this year, we’re going to talk about a proposal to bring in a consultant who will look at the 100,000 square foot facility to see how we will best use it,” Pipe noted.
Another project will be renovations to the historic Centre County court house.
“We’re going to be jumping into a big Phase II there,” Pipe said. “There’s just a vast diversity of projects going on. With all of those, we’re really focusing on how can we be innovative, collaborative and partner with different agencies throughout the county.”
One thing that Pipe is extremely proud of is the fact that during his time as commissioner, there has never been a property tax increase.
“For me, it’s been eight straight budgets without a property tax increase. Not every county across the state can say that. We’re in the minority of counties that haven’t raised them in at least four years. It is really two parts – we’re controlling our spending and we are seeing development occur within the county. It’s growth that is being planted in a really good way. It’s not sprawl,” he said.
Pipe cited growth in State College Borough, Walker Township and Rush Township, just to name a few.
According to Pipe, the county closely monitors what its budget through a datametrics program. County salaries and benefits are the biggest item in the budget, he said.
“It’s our largest line item. Out of an $80 million budget, it’s about $34 million. We track that on a monthly basis, but we can track it on a weekly basis. That’s been a big part of controlling (the budget). Right now, we are about $400,000 under budget and that’s a good sign,” Pipe said.
Pipe said that while he has thought about running for other political offices, he’s content where he is.
“I can’t imagine being away from my family. This last month has been tough because there have been so many events,” he said. “Right now, I’m focused on a third term and wanting to do that.”
Pipe resides in Boalsburg with his wife, Ashley and their daughter, Brenna. In his free time, he said that he likes home improvement projects.
“I love working on the house,” Pipe said. “We bought a fixer-upper and I just enjoy projects. I enjoy troubleshooting.”