Grants for the Arts Available Through Pocono Arts Council, Sen. Blake Shares

HARRISBURG, May 1, 2014 – Grant money is available for Northeast Pennsylvania residents who are artists and who teach their craft to students or who represent an arts-related and community-based non-profit organization, state Sen. John Blake said today.

Applications for the grants, which are through the Pocono Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, must be submitted by June 20.

“Artists add substantially to the quality of life in Northeast Pennsylvania and we would have less vitality and beauty in our community without them,” state Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe) said. “I am pleased to share the news from the Pocono Arts Council about the grants that will be awarded to applicants living and working throughout NEPA.”

The “Project Stream” grants are for art projects in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike and Wayne counties and will be decided through a local-decision making process.

The maximum grant award will be $2,500 and slightly less than $39,000 is available.

Sen. Blake said applications may be submitted online beginning today.

Artists and arts organizations that would like help in writing their grant applications can participate in workshops at the following locations on the specified day:

May 8 – 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Lackawanna County Arts & Culture, The Electric City Trolley Museum, 300 Cliff St., Scranton. Arts-Culture@lackawannacounty.org

May 21 – 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Hazleton Integration Project, Hazleton One Community Center, 225 E. 4th St., Hazleton. www.hazletonintegrationproject.com

May 23 – 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., ARTSPACE Gallery – Pocono Arts Council, 18 N. Seventh St., Stroudsburg. www.poconoarts.org

May 29 – 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., The Cooperage Project, 1030 Main St., Honesdale. www.thecooperageproject.org

May 30 – 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Wyoming Valley Art League, 130 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre. www.wyomingvalleyartleague.org

RSVP to register for any of the free classes with Tassy Gilbert, Pocono Arts Council’s Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts program coordinator, at tassy@poconoarts.org or 570-476-4460.

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Sen. Blake, State Housing Experts Gather to Tackle Affordable Housing Crisis

HARRISBURG, April 4, 2014 – With a shortage of more than 200,000 available and affordable rental units statewide, more residents abandoning homes that have become unaffordable, and the escalating price of homeownership, state Sen. John Blake joined housing experts this morning to discuss reasonable initiatives to expand the supply of adequate and affordable housing.

Blake’s “Affordable Housing Forum” featured expert panelists from six organizations that work to help people find homes they can pay for and live in for many years.

“There is an affordable housing crisis that has been exacerbated by the recent economic recession and persisting stagnant wages, high property taxes and other rising costs of living,” Blake said during his opening of the forum. “Foreclosures, distressed homeownership, blight and poverty continue to work together to make this problem worse but I believe there are answers, and I believe this forum will make a difference in finding them.”

The experts who participated in Blake’s forum included Nichole Bennett, United Neighborhood Centers’ director of program analysis and data quality; Athena Aardweg, Self-Determination Housing Project’s Region 4 housing coordinator; Peg Ruddy, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center; Jesse Ergott, president and CEO, NeighborWorks NEPA; Michael Hanley, United Neighborhood Centers’ executive director; Bryce Maretzki, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency’s director of strategic planning and policy; and Cindy Daley, policy director for the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance.

Before a sold-out Swartz Center on Marywood University’s campus, the experts and Sen. Blake discussed the affordable housing spectrum, the housing needs for domestic violence survivors, challenges to making more affordable homes available, and unfortunately, the failure of the commonwealth to fund a state program that was signed into law in 2010.

Blake, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced Senate Bill 216 a year ago to finally provide revenue for the Statewide Housing Trust Fund. That fund was approved in 2010 as Act 105 but it has yet to receive a revenue stream.

SB 216 would finally deliver dollars to the Statewide Housing Trust Fund. That revenue, however, would not come from Pennsylvania’s general fund budget.

Instead, Blake’s proposal would give counties the option to participate in the trust fund and generate revenue to deliver more affordable housing through fees paid when certain writs are recorded in their Recorder of Deeds offices. In 2011, more than 800,000 of these writs were filed in county offices throughout Pennsylvania.

The senator’s proposed legislation would not allow counties to increase the fees on the recording of mortgages or deeds but it would permit nominal increases in fees for things like the recording of easements, declaration of plans, and rights of way.

Counties that choose to participate in the trust fund program would be able to retain 25 percent of the revenue generated for affordable housing projects; the remainder would be delivered to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to pay for the debt service on any trust fund bond issue.

“We must work to deliver an adequate supply of affordable housing to ensure health, safety and dignity for all of our citizens and particularly for people with disability. Homeownership is the essential builder of wealth in America and investing in quality housing is critical to growing our regional economy,” Blake said. “My bill is but one idea of many that we are considering.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in a study released earlier this year that the average wage needed to pay for a two-bedroom home was $18.92 an hour. That’s more than two-and-a-half times Pennsylvania’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage, Blake said.

“This disparity underscores a problem in NEPA and across the commonwealth,” the senator said.

Blake’s SB 216 has yet to be considered by the Senate Urban Affairs & Housing Committee.

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Blake to Examine Affordable Housing Issues, Solutions During April 4 Forum

HARRISBURG, April 2, 2014 – State Sen. John Blake, Marywood University President Anne Munley and regional housing experts will gather at 9 a.m. Friday, April 4, at Marywood University to work on adopting solutions to affordable housing problems in Northeast Pennsylvania and throughout the state.

Scheduled to appear during the two-hour “Affordable Housing Forum” include:

  • Nichole Bennett, United Neighborhood Centers
  • Athena Aardweg, Self-Determination Housing Project
  • Peg Ruddy, Women’s Resource Center
  • Jesse Ergott, NeighborWorks NEPA
  • Michael Hanley, United Neighborhood Centers
  • Bryce Maretzki, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency
  • Cindy Daley, Pennsylvania Housing Alliance

Sen. Blake, who proposed legislation a year ago to finally fund the Statewide Housing Trust Fund (Senate Bill 216), will open the forum following a greeting by Sister Munley. The event is free but has been sold out.

Media coverage is encouraged for this important discussion.

WHAT: Sen. John Blake’s “Affordable Housing Forum”

WHEN: 9 a.m. – 11 a.m., Friday, April 4

WHERE:Swartz Center, Marywood University, 2300 Adams Ave., Scranton

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Lackawanna, Monroe County Projects to Share $4 Million in Grants, Create More Than 300 Jobs

HARRISBURG, March 20, 2014 – The latest round of grant awards by the Commonwealth Financing Authority from Pennsylvania’s local share gaming program means 29 projects in Lackawanna and Monroe counties will share approximately $4 million and create more than 300 jobs in the region, state Sen. John Blake said today.

“From infrastructure improvements at the Valley View Business Park to improvements at the Carbondale Technology Transfer Center, Northeast Pennsylvania communities are continuing to benefit from the local share funds generated by Pennsylvania’s gaming industry,” Blake said.

“We work together in Harrisburg to assure these limited funds are distributed fairly to projects that promise to deliver the greatest benefit to communities and families in our region,” he said.

In Lackawanna County:

  • West Side Hyde Park Community Center received $163,000 to convert a vacant building into a youth and community center in Scranton.
  • $140,000 went to Marley’s Mission to help it build a new outdoor therapy center, outdoor pavilion, hay and manure storage buildings. Based in Newton Township, Marley’s Mission is dedicated to providing equine-based therapy services to children and their families who have experienced traumatic events.
  • Covington Township Moffat Park Pavilion received $190,000 to convert a pavilion to year-round use.
  • Lackawanna County Historical Society: $118,750 for replacement and upgrades of the Catlin House, Scranton, heating and electrical systems.
  • Olyphant Municipal Building: $200,000 for the addition of a new elevator, security doors, safer stairs.
  • Taylor Borough Splash Park: $40,000 for construction of splash park at John Derenick Memorial Park.
  • Throop Borough: $100,000 to upgrade Little League fields, build a new field and add concessions, storage and restrooms.
  • Jessup Borough: $15,000 to the Michael Steiner American Legion for a kitchen renovation and the resurfacing of its banquet hall.
  • $90,000 to the St. Anthony Memorial Park Association for renovations of the parking area and restroom in Dunmore Borough.
  • $452,400 to Jessup Borough for the Scranton Lackawanna Industrial Building Company to assist with infrastructure development of a 22-acre Brownfield site that will be known as the Valley View Business Park Professional Plaza. The project is expected to create 250 new jobs.
  • Goodwill Industries of Northeast Pennsylvania: $150,000 to develop a material salvage program, purchase two box trailer trucks, an electronic pallet jack, forklift, scale, bailer and a year’s worth of project site lease payments.
  • Center for Rehabilitation Education Equipment: $225,000 to help the University of Scranton buy and install specialized medical and health-related equipment for the new rehab center, which will consolidate its exercise science, occupational therapy and physical therapy departments into one $47.5 million center for rehabilitation education.
  • Carbondale Technology Transfer Center: $200,000 to upgrade equipment and to renovate and repair CTTC so it can attract 40 new companies to the facility.
  • Roaring Brook Township: $240,000 to pave and rebuild Golf Club Road to improve road drainage.
  • Waverly Township: $100,000 to restore and upgrade Stevenson Road to address heavy storm water runoff.
  • Jefferson Township: $50,000 for the Jefferson Township Sewer Authority to replace seven sanitary sewer pumps that now are experiencing significant maintenance issues.
  • Archbald Borough: $261,250 for the excavation and reconstruction of Peggy Drive, which is one of two primary access roads to the Valley View School District Complex and the main access road for school buses.
  • Scranton City: $100,000 for the Sewer Authority to buy two street sweepers.
  • Scranton City: $112,500 for the police department to buy and install a community surveillance network that provides continuously operational monitoring along a closed-circuit feed.
  • Blakely Borough: $50,000 for the construction of a building to house EMA support, snow removal and police equipment plus administrative records.
  • Greenfield Township: $25,000 to pave the parking lot at the township municipal building.
  • Northeast Regional Cancer Institute: $125,000 to help pay for the expansion of its community-based healthcare education and training program to provide real-life learning for students.
  • Taylor Borough: $25,000 for a new police vehicle and equipment.
  • Moscow Borough: $100,000 to replace its 15-year-old dump truck with a new vehicle.
  • Archbald Borough: $20,829 to help American Legion Post 869 pay for the replacement of its kitchen floor, bar top and provide an additional handicapped-accessible ladies restroom.

In Monroe County:

  • Coolbaugh Township: $164,400 for a paving project to be completed by the Coolbaugh Township VFD.
  • Monroe County IDA: $300,000 for an alternative energy manufacturing project by EthoGen/J.A. Reinhardt, to begin production of a thermal electric power system.
  • Monroe County IDA: $205,500 to add a left-turn only lane to Route 940 at Knox Street in Mount Pocono Borough.
  • Barrett Township: $79,094 for new police vehicles.

An additional alternative and clean energy grant of $1.2 million will help Clean Energy Inc. to build a public-access liquefied compressed natural gas fueling station in Pittston Township, Luzerne County.

Known as an LCNG fueling station, the new facility will be located within a mile of I-81 and I-476. The closest facility of its kind is now 133 miles away.

“This project and others like it serve to bring the benefits of the natural gas industry to the citizens and the business community of our state,” Blake said.

The projects that received funding today were reviewed and approved by the Commonwealth Financing Authority.

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Blake, Senate Democrats Unveil Pension Reform Proposal to Save Billions for Taxpayers

HARRISBURG, March 12, 2014 – State Senate Democrats today said they would save Pennsylvania taxpayers billions of dollars and solve the state’s pension problem if their proposal to further reform pension rules, refinance billions and help school districts avoid escalating payments is adopted.

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny); the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Senate Whip Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia); the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Vince Hughes (D-Philadelphia); and Sen. Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) unveiled the caucus’ proposal during a briefing with Capitol news correspondents.

With the State Employees’ Retirement System and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System drowning in a sea of underfunding approaching $50 billion, the Senate Democratic proposal would refinance $9 billion of that, further reform the state pension law to stop charter schools from receiving double-dip state reimbursements, and lower the collars on state and school district payments to provide short-term budget relief while also making it easier to manage future cost increases.

“The pension reform plan we are suggesting is smart and innovative. It saves money and creates a plausible responsible fiscal roadmap for the future,” Sen. Costa said. “Refinancing $9 billion in existing unfunded liabilities would decrease long-term payments by $24 billion. Over the next five years, it would save school districts $600 million and the commonwealth $1 billion.”

The Democratic Senators said they are making this proposal because it would avoid the dangers posed by Gov. Tom Corbett’s pension proposal, such as:

  • $2 billion in additional payments over the next four years, including $550 million more in the 2015-’16 state budget
  • $5 billion more in unfunded pension liabilities, and
  • The camouflaging of increased future costs that could add millions more to the pension crisis.

Sen. Blake repeated the Democratic Caucus’ mantra that time is of the essence for these critical changes to happen.

“If we continue to delay our responsibility to fulfill our fiduciary requirement and deliver what has been promised in retirement to thousands of educators and public employees, it will be taxpayers, their children, and their children’s children who will have to pay the bill,” Blake said. “We cannot allow that to happen.

“The Corbett administration has already refinanced billions in debt to make a bad situation better when it floated nearly $4 billion in bonds to restore Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation reserves in 2012. We must do the same with pensions,” the Lackawanna County Democrat said.

Senate Democratic Appropriations Chairman Vince Hughes urged bipartisan support for the caucus’ proposal.

“People from across the political spectrum are, and have been, educators and state employees. They are depending on us to fix this growing problem and this is the solution we need,” Hughes said. “Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly must work together to get this idea to the governor’s desk.”

Sen. Williams said he believes fiscally responsible lawmakers will especially like the proposal to eliminate the current practice that allows charter schools be reimbursed by the state for pension payments that are completely paid for by school districts.

“This has been a good deal for charter schools, but the set up is hurting school districts, taxpayers and students across the state,” Williams said. “Making this change will significantly reduce school district pension payments because it will eliminate the 50 percent reimbursement that charter schools now receive after districts pay the escalating pension bill.”

And, Sen. Farnese said it is important for the commonwealth to continue its defined benefits pension system because it requires financial professionals to manage contributions.

“Too many people who are approaching retirement don’t have the nest eggs to guarantee them the security and independence they need to do the things they dreamed of doing when they were working,” Farnese said. “Defined benefit pensions are still the most efficient way to save for retirement. Moving away from that system will only hurt the financial security of future generations.”

The National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., issued a report in February indicating that half of the households where people are on the cusp of retirement (65 to 69 years old) have retirement accounts of $5,000 or less.

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