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PHEAA Gives Back

PHEAAIn a budget year that has been filled with disappointments and challenges, I was proud to participate in some good news last week when the PHEAA Board voted on Thursday to give $50 million to the Commonwealth to supplement the state grant program. As Vice Chairman of the Board, I have been working with my colleagues on this offer for quite some time and I am thrilled that it has finally come to fruition.

Did You Know…

Did you know that PHEAA was created in 1963 by the General Assembly and the voters?

A November 1963 vote amended the PA Constitution to authorize for the first time grant and loan-making to individuals pursuing post-secondary education. Today, the agency does business across the country with $130.9 billion in assets under management, serves millions of students and thousands of schools through loan servicing, grant and financial aid processing systems. In FY 09-10, the State Grant Program was comprised of over 183,000 awards valued at $413 million.

The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) has made significant strides in accomplishing its goal of becoming a valuable partner with Pennsylvania parents and students. The selection of top administrative staff and the reorganization of PHEAA has certainly been the primary factor in this news. Prudent fiscal management, reform, restructuring and new business development that has been undertaken in the past few years has financially positioned PHEAA to make a real difference. This supplement is funded entirely from PHEAA’s business earnings and is in addition to the $15 million that PHEAA incurs to administer the state grant program and provide public service outreach – at no cost to taxpayers. That’s really the best news.

The proposed state grant appropriation for the 2011-12 academic year is $380.9 million. Combined with the $50 million supplement, the maximum state grant award will increase from last year’s level of $3,541 to $4,309, approximately $700 more. The Board also voted to move the state grant application deadline from May 1 to August 1 for non-renewal students who attend community college. This action is expected to provide awards for approximately 15,000 additional community college students. Once the budget is passed, final awards will be recalculated for all students and notification will be made if there are any changes to students’ eligibility.

McKees Rocks P & LE Railroad Brownfield Project Moves Forward

Yesterday, in McKees Rocks the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the launch of the redevelopment of the P&LE Railroad brownfield site. Although I was unable to attend yesterday’s announcement ceremony because I am in Harrisburg working on the budget, I am very proud to have played a part in moving the brownfield development forward.

McKees Rocks P & LE Railroad Brownfield ProjectShortly after I was elected, I met with a business interested in expanding onto the site and was able to secure Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program (RCAP) funds for the site. Although the business did not end up using the site, that funding was able to assist Allegheny County in cleaning the site and readying it for use. It made the site all the more attractive when Trinity Commercial Development became interested in the possibilities it saw there.

Yesterday’s launch of the redevelopment efforts was possible because of the cooperation between all of the elected officials representing this area. Without the full support of the McKees Rocks Borough officials, steps would not have been taken to pave the way for this development and to work with them to make changes to the zoning and other ordinances that will benefit the community. County assistance would not have been possible without the commitments by Chief Executive Onorato and his economic development office. The federal government’s assistance and attention to this project is directly attributable to the involvement of Congressman Doyle.

It gives me great pleasure to have been able to secure state funds and to provide information to Craig Rippole and Trinity Development about resources available to them through the state such as the Business In Our Sites program, and to support their efforts in applying for and securing those funds. Yesterday’s event highlights the former P & LE Railroad site as a model for restoring brownfields, creating jobs and transforming communities – and doing so by working together.

Trinity Commercial Development has projected that a full build-out of the site will result in 1,172 operational jobs (414 direct jobs and 758 indirect and induced jobs), total state/local tax impact for operational jobs: $9,752,639, a total of 642 construction jobs (320 direct construction jobs/322 indirect and induced construction jobs) and total state/local tax impact for construction jobs: $3,486,283.

The EPA also announced the award of $1 million for environmental assessment to the North Side Industrial Development Company, a non-profit development organization, for use on additional brownfield sites located within the River Towns Coalition communities. This is also a project that I was proud to lend my support to and am glad that these communities will begin to see some positive steps in undertaking these environmental cleanups.

Mellon Square

Mellon Square Restoration Project

The transformation of Mellon Square took a big step forward when Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy broke ground on the first phase of the restoration project last week. As a member of the Mellon Square Committee, I am excited for this project for a number of reasons. Specifically, it will re-establish the park’s historic character, improve the visitor experience, and help attract new business downtown. It will also complement other revitalization projects that have taken place recently, including Market Square and the Fifth and Forbes Corridor.

Recognizing a Hero

Joyce RothermelCongratulations to Joyce Rothermel, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank on her retirement. Joyce not only helped establish the non-profit organization, she also dedicated the next 30 years of her life to serving the needs of the disadvantaged and working towards the ultimate goal of ending hunger. Under her leadership, the Food Bank has become a lifeline for community organizations and the people they serve. Just consider: In 1981, the Food Bank distributed one million pounds of food to the needy. Today, it distributes 20 million pounds per year and has expanded to serve 11 counties.

FoodBankI have partnered with Joyce and the Food Bank on numerous occasions and have witnessed her ability to inspire others and bring about change in the community. It’s why I was proud to join with my colleagues from Western Pennsylvania to recognize Joyce’s accomplishments with a Senate citation. Joyce leaves the Food Bank in good hands, and even though she is retiring, her legacy will live on. Western Pennsylvania is better off thanks to her hard work and good will. Somehow, I doubt that we’ve heard the last of her.

National Down Syndrome Society Photo Contest

Buddy WalkTo celebrate the 17th anniversary of the Buddy Walk, the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) is looking for submissions for its Times Square Video Contest. The video will showcase individuals with Down syndrome from all over the world and will air in Times Square on September 24th. If you would like to have your picture considered for the project you may submit a photo and consent form on the National Down Syndrome Society’s Buddy Walk website. You may also mail your photo and consent form to the address provided on the website. The deadline for submissions is July 15th. Each year, NDSS receives thousands of photos for the contest. Selected photos are then incorporated in the video to represent diversity within the Down syndrome community. There is a one photo per individual limit.

Around the District

As we get closer to a final budget, much of my time has been spent in Harrisburg working with my colleagues to address those issues of concern while still meeting with constituents and moving other legislation forward. This week was no exception.

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of introducing Lee Ann Munger to the Senate Education Committee for consideration as a nominee to the State Charter School Appeals Board. Lee Ann is a skilled professional who has long been an advocate for business owners and, specifically, women in business. She is the current Director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the Center for Women in Business at the University of Pittsburgh. Today, both of her sons attend Propel Montour, which is located in Kennedy Township. The State Charter School Appeals Board will be a good fit for her as it will give her the opportunity to represent families who are concerned about excellence in education – and I have no doubt that she will do just that on the Board. (Her nomination was unanimously supported by the committee and just awaits confirmation by the full Senate.)

Also on Tuesday, legislation (HB 442) passed the Senate to prohibit private transfer fees – legislation that I drafted in the last session (SB 353 and SB 1481) and worked on with numerous interest groups to improve and provide much needed consumer protections. I urged the House to take quick action on the bill and am proud to report that the House concurred with Senate amendments and that the bill now goes to the Governor for consideration. The Senate also considered legislation to license abortion facilities (SB 732) and to provide a budget for the PA Gaming Control Board, State Police, Attorney General and Department of Revenue for operations related to gaming in the state (SB 1062).

On Wednesday, we returned to session in the morning to vote on legislation that allows municipalities to enter into contracts with municipal managers (SB 828, SB 829, SB 830, SB 831 and SB 832), a bill that would ban the use and sale of bath salts and synthetic marijuana in the Commonwealth (SB 1006), establishment of the state aid for libraries in the coming fiscal year (SB 1086) and bills that brought PA into line with federal law on surplus lines of insurance (SB 1096 and SB 1097).

As I had already noted, Thursday included a PHEAA Board Meeting where the Board authorized a $50 million public service contribution by PHEAA to the Commonwealth to be used to supplement the PA State Grant Program. That supplement, combined with the proposed appropriation in the budget, is expected to increase the maximum state grant award from $3,541 provided in FY 2010-11 to $4,309 in FY 2011-12, a $700 increase.

On Friday, the Senate returned to session to address one issue – unemployment compensation. Although the Senate acted on May 24th to pass legislation (SB 1030) that would have extended federal unemployment benefits for some 45,000 residents, the House had issues with the bill. Earlier this week, a compromise was reached and the House voted yesterday on the amended bill. We returned to session on Friday to concur in the House amendments so that the Governor could consider and sign the bill today to ensure that federal benefits are not lost.

Work within our caucus continued over the weekend as we crafted amendments to the budget that address the many issues and line items with which we have a concern.

On Monday, I was proud to offer a Senate Resolution (SR 149) on the floor to recognize Scott Township’s 150th Anniversary which is, officially, June 29th – but is being celebrated throughout the township’s July 4th weekend celebrations.

Fontana Fact

Mellon Square 1955

Mellon Square opened in October of 1955 and was one of the main projects of Pittsburgh’s Renaissance I. It was also the nation’s first modern plaza with a garage underneath, and a precursor of green roofs. To beautify the space, over 25,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers were used within the park.

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana

National Down Syndrome Society?s Buddy Walk website. Mellon Square Restoration Project Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank PHEAA