Bob Del Signore left his office in the Lawrence County courthouse for the last time Friday with many feathers of accomplishments tucked in his cap.
What the retiring commissioner accomplished in eight years took only two votes, but he was never satisfied with any of his ideas unless all three commissioners approved them, he said.
Del Signore was an unsuccessful bidder for re-election in the May 2019 primary election. But that hasn’t hampered his enthusiasm or his vision for Lawrence County. He gave a misty-eyed goodbye at the commissioners’ final meeting, and he aspires to continue working elsewhere, vowing he’s not done with public or business sector service.
During his tenure, he was a motivator behind many county and courthouse-based projects. He spearheaded a movement to raze dilapidated houses that banks had foreclosed upon, and to generate funds for future demolitions.
He was a driving force behind several courthouse projects, including restoration of the front of the old courthouse, which is currently in progress, replacements of the courthouse roof, the stained glass windows of the Gettings Annex and the roof at The Almira building that houses Children and Youth Services, to name a few.
The bell tower refurbishment is part of the facade project on the front of the old courthouse, and he chose its blue paint, he said, because it was the original color of the courthouse porch.
“We never had to pay for specs for any of these jobs,” Del Signore pointed out. “I found that if you got a good (contracting) company that was doing excellent work, they would do the specs for free. That saved the county literally thousands of dollars.”
Del Signore said it was his idea to enlarge the county Tax Claim Bureau to provide more space in a limited area and give the office more visibility to taxpayers.
“The people at the counter couldn’t see the workers on the phone, and the workers couldn’t see people at the counter,” he said.
The commissioners at his prompting had the remodeling done by the county maintenance staff under the direction of its superintendent, Frank Piccari, and the new improvements include a handicapped-accessible window.
“It was done at very little cost and they did a wonderful job,” Del Signore said.
Del Signore said he was one of the facilitators of uniting the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp. as one organization. He said he approached the Hoyt Foundation, and with the help of John Cournan as the chamber president, the Hoyt agreed to fund $200,000 a year for two years, with the potential for three, he recalled.
The commissioners had been giving an annual contribution to the economic development corporation, and they increased the amount from $83,000 to $100,000 as a two-to-one match to the Hoyt money, he said.
He sees one of his biggest achievements as helping to create a better image for the city through the funding of New Visions, a nonprofit organization that has been the organizer of the annual holiday parade, the downtown ice rink and the facilitator of other events and projects.
“They’ve made an impact on activities in town that have drawn people here from other municipalities and from counties,” he said.
Del Signore said he initially approached the Hoyt Foundation about funding for New Visions, and the foundation at that time committed funding over five years, as long as the city cooperated.
“That was before the county got involved,” he said. The commissioners in February 2018 provided the agency free office space in the Gettings annex. The move also meant that New Visions director Angie Urban would work with Ellwood City, New Wilmington and other communities, said Del Signore, who also sat on New Visions board of directors.
The county also increased its contribution to New Visions then, giving it more than $50,000 in tax dollars, with the intent that the agency would expand its scope of service and activity to the entire county.
“There are concerns that the county shouldn’t get involved in municipal issues,” Del Signore said, “but the county has to lead, and the county helps the municipalities in many other ways, too. The commissioners provide Marcellus Shale funding and some of its share of state liquid fuels funds to municipalities for certain requested uses.
For example, the commissioners gave North Beaver Township $400,000 toward replacement of a bridge that was hindering the commerce for Wampum Hardware, a longstanding business, Del Signore pointed out, adding, “Most citizens don’t really know what the commissioners do. We are that entity that steps in.”
He also takes credit for creating the county land bank, something he “pushed hard” for, that was born from the need to clean up blighted properties.
He initiated the demolition of blighted buildings on his own, he said, having found that banks owned ramshackle properties that were for sale and were asking high prices for them. There were about 15 such houses in the county, he said.
One of those, on Lathrop Street, “was a total disaster,” he said. The bank wanted $32,000 for it, and he contacted the bank and told them the property was a liability and needed to be demolished. The county obtained the deed and title and had it razed for $6,000.
“Then we went to the next property,” he said, and so on. Altogether, the county had 11 or 12 houses removed, and three houses that needed work have been sold to other people and are back on the tax rolls. He added that all of the vacant neighboring lots except for two were sold to neighbors.
“We delegated the demolition to county planning, and they went for grants to help,” he said. The county through that process gave the city $366,000 over the past three years for demolition.
The county continues to send letters to the municipalities each year to provide addresses of blighted houses for the list.
“That is just going gangbusters,” Del Signore said. “Do I like to tear things down? Absolutely not.”
He said he checked out every property in person to see if it could be saved or if it needed to be torn down.
With the money leftover from the grant, the commissioners gave the county redevelopment authority $40,000 for the land bank transactions, because there were no more houses on the demolition list, he said.
“I wanted to try to help downtown New Castle, Ellwood City and New Wilmington, but New Castle was my primary focus,” he said. His efforts there at times caused conflict with New Castle officials, who differed in opinion about blight.
“It’s very difficult to get a change when you don’t have cooperation from the municipalities,” he said, speaking specifically of the city. “We haven’t had the best cooperation, but I think that will improve with the new administration.”
“It wasn’t all me,” he said, reflecting on his accomplishments. “I had to bring the message, but I don’t think I had a single ‘no’ vote.”
Del Signore said that when he first started, Vogler and Craig were incumbents with whom he quickly formed strong working bonds. He said he was never satisfied until there were three votes on a decision, and even when they disagreed, they shook hands and left the room as gentlemen, he said.
Craig said he learned a lesson from Del Signore, that despite any disagreements they may have had over issues, “Bob is the most forgiving person I’ve ever met. He never holds a grudge. It never got personal and he was always, always a gentleman.”
Del Signore prided Vogler for his administrative wisdom and decorum, saying, “there’s never been anyone better.”
Regarding Craig, he said, “Steve had so much influence, being on different committees, regionally. He brought a lot of value to this county. People really don’t know that.”
Craig and Vogler both touted Del Signore’s business background as an asset to county government.
“Bob has a very unique set of skills. He was the go-to guy for all things that had to do with buildings and grounds, and he has a solid insight into economic development,” Craig said. “Of the three of us, he brought the best business sense to the table. I really enjoy his company. He’s unique individual in many, many ways.”
Vogler said he has known Del Signore since the 1980s when Del Signore ran a business downtown and was active in the United Way. He also has been active for years in the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp.
“It’s been a pleasure to work alongside Bob,” Vogler said. “He’s been a very diligent commissioner. We’re certainly going to miss his knowledge and expertise. He has an extremely sharp mind and a very good memory.”
Del Signore conceded that losing the election was hard, but he’s resigned to moving on.
“I’m 81 years old,” he said. “it’s probably the right time.”
Del Signore lives in Neshannock Township with his wife, Kay. He plans to take the winter off and look for work in the spring, he said, possibly in real estate or consulting.
“I want to continue to use my mind,” he said.