In a split vote Thursday, and without discussion, Washington County commissioners agreed to purchase the Crossroads Center, 95 W. Beau St., for $10 million.
Commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan and Commissioner Nick Sherman voted in favor of entering the agreement of sale with Beau Street Associates L.P., but Commission Vice Chairman Larry Maggi cast a “no” vote.
The motion also authorized Finance Director Joshua Hatfield to execute any and all documents on the county’s behalf with a closing date to be determined.
After an agenda meeting Wednesday, the Republican-majority commissioners said they expect the transaction to be completed by the end of this year, paving the way for a transition from Courthouse Square to the Crossroads Center by mid-2021.
Clerk of Courts Brenda Davis addressed the commissioners before their vote, expressing her support.
“I’m advocating for appropriate office space for all county employees, who are working on top of each other,” said Davis, whose office employs eight full-time employee and one part-timer to handle criminal filings and a myriad of miscellaneous matters.
“You can’t function without proper office space.”
The head count of union members in the row office hasn’t changed in 25 years, Davis explained, even though the Washington County bench now includes seven judges due to increased caseload.
Davis was not volunteering to move her office to the new building, and no decisions have been yet been made about rearranging office space in the courthouse in light of the impending move from the 40-year-old Courthouse Square office building, Irey Vaughan said.
In a news release, Maggi, the sole Democrat on the board, acknowledged Courthouse Square “has been severely damaged by pyrite,” which has destabilized the parking garage that serves as the building’s foundation.
“My suggestion is to mediate the problem at Courthouse Square, which I believe can be done at a much lesser cost than buying a new building and moving operations across the street,” he said in the news release that also noted government acquisition of Crossroads Center would remove it from Washington county, city and schools district tax rolls.
Irey Vaughan and Sherman disputed Maggi’s reference Wednesday to Courthouse Square site work that could be done for less than $1 million.
The lowest bid in March of last year to repair the garage was nearly $4.9 million, according to Irey Vaughan, and a second came in at $6.7 million.
Additional work on the Courthouse Square plaza would have added about $3.5 million to the project.
Rebidding the total project in March 2020 resulted in a low bid of $10.6 million, she quoted.
The Crossroads Center, built about a dozen years ago, houses several tenants but offers about 60,000 square feet of flexible space compared with 70,000 square feet of compartmentalized Courthouse Square.
Maggi questioned the county’s role in dealing with the tenants, the leases for whom will be reviewed as they expire.
Sherman and Irey Vaughan pointed out that the county serves as landlord for the Washington County Redevelopment Authority, the similarly named but separate Washington County Authority, and Penn State Extension.
Washington County reported three new COVID-19 deaths Thursday as the virus continued to surge locally and statewide.
The virus has claimed 56 lives in the county while the state once again shattered its record for new daily cases, the state Health Department said.
“We are in for a very challenging time,” state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Thursday.
The state announced 7,126 new cases Thursday and 116 additional deaths linked to the virus.
Washington County added 153 new virus cases, taking its total to 3,493. Greene County’s case count increased by 22, bringing its total to 529. Fayette County added 45 new cases to its total of 1,547.
The previous statewide record for new cases was set Wednesday when 6,339 of them were announced.
Levine spoke Thursday about the pending COVID-19 vaccines, which should be available in their first phase of release in about a month.
She said she is “comfortable with the process” and believes they will be safe and effective.
“It will not be a cure,” said Levine, while predicting face mask mandates will survive into late 2021.
COVID-19 cases across Southwestern Pennsylvania have soared in recent weeks, and local hospitals are preparing for the surge in hospitalizations.
Earlier this week, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine warned that the state, at its current rate, will run out of ICU beds in December.
She urged hospital officials to gear up for a surge in COVID-19 patients, and to work with other hospitals to “prepare how they’re going to support one another, should we get to the point that a hospital could become overwhelmed.”
Dr. John Six, Vice President of Medical Affairs and chief medical officer at Washington Health System, is concerned that the pandemic is going to worsen in the region.
“I do see that, as a region, this is likely to worsen for us. We have the perfect storm, if you will, for holiday gatherings, changing weather, and influenza,” said Six. “I think we are just at the beginning. I think this is a marathon, and this is very early in the race.”
Joshua Krysak, community relations director for Uniontown Hospital, shares Six’s concern.
“This surge is much more significant than anything we’ve seen to this point in the pandemic,” said Krysak.
In Washington County, the number of positive coronavirus cases has increased 102% in the past month, while the hospitalization rate has soared 688%. Deaths have risen by 67%.
Data provided by the Washington County Department of Safety showed that from the onset of the pandemic through Oct. 18, there were 1,650 COVID cases. In the month since then, 1,690 more cases have been reported.
In the past month, deaths have climbed from 32 to 53.
COVID cases have risen in Greene and Fayette counties, too.
So far, area hospitals and health care systems are faring well, even as cases have soared in recent weeks.
Allegheny Health Network’s Canonsburg Hospital on Thursday was treating 21 COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Chong S. Park, president of Canonsburg Hospital, said he is “confident that at Canonsburg we are able to handle what’s going on right now.”
The hospitals in the network meet daily to review each hospital’s needs and how to distribute supplies and equipment.
He said Canonsburg Hospital has adequate personal protective gear; it currently has 17 negative pressure rooms and is adding a dozen more; and has procured additional ventilators.
Bed capacity, though, is a concern.
“Bed capacity is bed capacity. You can’t create more,” said Park.
Over the past several days, the number of COVID patients admitted at Canonsburg Hospital has risen by a couple each day. And, while the average hospital stay is two to three days, coronavirus patients are hospitalized for typically seven to 10 days.
“So, every day, three or four may go home, but five or six might come in,” he said.
Hospitals are considering alternate care sites in the event they reach capacity.
At Washington Health System, 41 patients are being treated for COVID.
Over the last nine months, 230 COVID patients have been admitted – 70% of those have been admitted within the past six weeks, Six said. Three are on ventilators.
He worries about having enough doctors, nurses, and health care workers to care for COVID patients, even if WHS has enough beds and ventilators.
“All of the hospitals are feeling the squeeze with staffing because they’re out sick or in quarantine. That’s our greatest concern right now, having the human capital to make sure we can help our patients,” said Six.
At Uniontown Hospital, Krysak said the hospital has been able to handle the current influx of patients, and has plans in place “should the need arise for additional surge capacity.”
The hospital is averaging between five to 10 COVID-19 patients a day. Currently, none of the patients are on ventilators, but Krysak said Uniontown Hospital has a sufficient supply.
“All of the aspects that could be difficult in (upcoming) months – from potential staffing shortages to maintaining an adequate supply of PPE – may present challenges,” said Krysak. “But our team has worked and is continuing to work to navigate each obstacle presented by this crisis and be here and ready for our community when they need us most.”
In Washington County, 71 COVID patients were hospitalized as of Oct. 18, with more than a quarter of them in an ICU and eight of those critically ill patients on a ventilator.
By Dec. 12, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that an additional 7,300 to 16,000 Americans will die from COVID-19, bringing the total to between 276,000 to 298,000 deaths.
Another model, prepared by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington School of Medicine, projects 438,941 COVID deaths by March 1.
A rise of COVID cases came after Halloween, and with Thanksgiving and Christmas days and weeks away, health officials say this is a critical time for people to follow safety guidelines – wearing face masks, social distancing, washing hands, and celebrating only with members of their households.
“We are ready to help our community as best as anyone can,” said Park. “The only thing is, as a health care worker I’d ask everyone to do the right thing. They know what the right thing to do is; they just have to do it.”
Hospital officials said that new medications and potential vaccines are encouraging, but noted any vaccine will not be available for months, and even then, initial distribution is likely to be limited.
“It’s very important now more than ever to really consider doing the basics,” said Six. “Masking, social distancing and hand-washing are really going to get us through this surge.”
Six said hospital workers are experiencing some fatigue, nine months into the pandemic, but said morale remains high, and community support has been outstanding.
“When we started down this journey nine months ago, morale was higher. We were getting our feet wet,” said Six. “Now, you have the stress of this surge. I think it starts to show. But we as a health system are here for you. We are here 24/7. We will get through this. Don’t panic.”
The Washington County president judge on Thursday affirmed a decision by the state Office of Open Records that Rep. Bud Cook be given access to redevelopment authority records related to the Local Share Account projects and requests for funding from casino gambling revenue.
Cook, R-West Pike Run Township, began seeking copies of records in December of last year dating back to 2008, the initial divvying up of the local share after slot-machine gambling was legalized at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
The law also designated a portion of the revenue be used for community improvements, economic development and job training in the host county.
Over the past 11 years, the Local Share Account has funded just over $101.3 million worth of projects ranging from sewers in the West Brownsville area and roads at Southpointe and Starpointe business parks to more modest ones such as doors that open automatically at the Washington Senior Citizens Center.
The amount of money that will be available this year, reduced during the casino’s temporary closure due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, is not yet known, said Washington County Commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan.
Cook appealed the redevelopment authority’s denial for copies of LSA files to the state office that handles open records requests in January.
On Feb, 26, the administrative decision found that the redevelopment authority was required to comply within 30 days. The authority then appealed the matter to Washington County Court.
President Judge Katherine B. Emery, in a six-page finding of facts and conclusions of law, determined that when granting Cook permission to look at records, “that narrow view does not comport with either the letter or the spirit of the Right-to-Know Law. The Act requires access for inspection and duplication.”
Cook requested copies of documents, not to view them, the judge wrote.
“The court finds that simply allowing Rep. Cook to come to their office and look through 17 drawers of cabinet files is not what the Right-to-Know Law requires or intends,” Emery decided.
Cook is seeking records related to 433 projects. He previously received information about the Alta Vista Business Park in his district and LSA-funded projects of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Promotion Agency for several years.
Annual lists and summaries of projects and audits were previously given to Cook, but his request for additional information in December of last year is not “duplicative,” Emery ruled.
“The burdensome nature of a right-to-know request is a real and costly one,” the judge wrote. “But it is a burden worth bearing to provide open and transparent government.”
The copies Cook is seeking will involve thousands of pages, but that doesn’t mean the authority can’t comply with his request, she pointed out.
The judge noted the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a slowdown of economic development, providing “an ideal time” for the redevelopment authority to comply with Cook’s request.
The redevelopment authority is permitted to impose a “reasonable” charge to copy records at a per-page rate it establishes, and the judge said “the duplication fee incorporates the material and labor costs.”
The redevelopment authority’s request that Cook pay in advance “is not appropriate,” according to the ruling.
Colin Fitch, solicitor for the redevelopment authority, said Thursday afternoon, “I’ve not seen any order, and I haven’t talked to my client.”
Any appeal of Emery’s order would go to Commonwealth Court.
Cook’s office, when contacted for comment about the judge’s ruling, did not immediately address it.
Through the Pennsylvania House GOP, Cook released a statement regarding the LSA selection process and attached a letter dated Nov. 13 he sent to the Washington County commissioners.
“I understand that substantial changes to the LSA award selection process were discussed over the summer,” Cook wrote.
Irey Vaughan said she and then-commissioner candidate Nick Sherman talked about making changes to the Local Share process during their successful 2019 campaign.
In August, the board of commissioners outlined several, including the live-streaming of public hearings on proposals; keeping minutes; requiring roll call votes by committee members making recommendations to the commissioners, including justification for or against funding and amounts; notifying applicants of the outcome; a formal committee vote on funding of LSA money requested outside of the usual timetable; accumulating no more than $2.5 million in unallocated funds; and requiring LSA committee members to disclose potential conflicts of interest and sign a statement.
“This has nothing to do with Bud Cook or the lawsuit,” Irey Vaughan said Thursday afternoon.