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Friday, July 15, 2011

Independent county exec hopeful opposes gas drilling

Posted By on Fri, Jul 15, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Hoping to cast a vote against Marcellus Shale drilling this November ... and disappointed that Dana Dolney is not the Democratic nominee in the county executive race? 

You have another option:Tom Kawczynski.

Kawczynski, who is seeking to launch an independent run for Allegheny County Executive, might seem an unlikely drilling opponent. He's a former Republican who I first met volunteering with the 2008 presidential campaign of libertarian hero Ron Paul. 

Even so, Kawczynski says he favors a two-year drilling ban in county limits. 

"I went to Pitt and I went to CMU and I talked to professors there and they told me, 'Tom, this is not safe and you should not support this,'" Kawczynski says. "Then I looked at the financial issue that everyone talks about, and the fact is our schools are in financial crisis and we're not seeing any money from the gas that's being taken out of the ground.

"So I think it's in the best interest of Allegheny County to stop this. Not permanently, but until we determine whether or not this can be done safely, and whether or not the people of Allegheny County will actually benefit."

That's not the only unorthodox part of Kawczynski's energy platform.  He also wants to invest county funds in alternative energy, specifically wind turbines. Installing wind turbines, he says, would allow the county to produce its own energy and make enough revenue to allow it to be "tax independent to have the ability to meet the needs of the people who live here."

And while he doesn't have concrete numbers, Kawczynski estimates that a $700 million investment based on current energy costs would yield roughly $55 to $60 million annually -- or about $2 billion over a 20-year period.

"You can do a lot with that extra revenue," Kawczynski says. "You can fund Port Authority, you can fund small business revitalization and community development projects.

Energy, he says, is "the best place for government to invest because it doesn't lose money."

On another hot-button issue, Kawczynski says he would move forward with the controversial property-tax reassessment process. However, he says, he would increase the homestead exemption to the first $20,000 of a home's value. (The current exemption is $15,000.)

Kawczynski says the increased exemption "will allow us to offset the impact to some folks" in lower- and middle-income bracks with higher property values -- "while forcing the guy whose $400,000 home is assessed at $150,000 to pay his fair share."

(For more on Kawczynski's plans, check out his intermittently-functioning website.)

He said he decided to get in the race before the primary because he didn't think either Democrat Rich Fitzgerald or Republican D. Raja, offered voters much of a choice.

"Whether Raja gets elected or whether Fitzgerald gets elected, the average voter in Allegheny County is not going to see a difference in terms of the policies that will be enacted or in how government operates," Kawczynski says.

While Kawczynski is ready to roll with a platform, he still needs signatures to win a spot on the ballot. The county requires him to compile election peittions with 2,990 signatures: He says he's reached about half that number, with just over two weeks until the August 1 deadline.

Kawczynski says he'd have an easier time collecting signatures -- and raising money -- if he hadn't taken a hard line on gas-drilling. That position alienated him from Tea Party sympathizers he once allied with. ("I thought the government bailout [of the banking industry] was a load of crap," he says.) But when he approached old friends, he says, his stance on Marcellus Shale "absolutely killed me."

Of course, his willingness to tax the rich, and to invest public money in wind energy, probably wouldn't help him gain Tea Party votes in November. But he says it's the gas drilling issue that hurt the most.

"They were yelling back at me, 'drill, baby, drill,'" says Kawczynski. "I guess I understand why they feel that way, because look, natural gas is a valuable commodity and it will probably become more so. But the process through which it's being extracted is bad.

"Getting people to hear that is hard because anytime you have trees or clean air or clean water vs. money, money is going to unfortunately win."

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