For someone who has been in politics for over 25 years, Kevin Barnhardt is one upbeat politician.Barnhardt, tall and fit, is always ready with a smile, a handshake or a joke. And sit in on one of the weekly commissioner's meetings and he is nearly always the first one to greet you.
After recently completing his first year in office as Berks County Commissioner, Barnhardt - "Kevin" as he prefers to be called - remains optimistic, if not pragmatic, about his accomplishments and what he feels he can accomplish in the years to come.
"Going in, personally, I wanted to do the best I could for Berks, considering the magnitude of what the county has to tackle," Barnhardt said. "I like to keep myself busy, and there's never a dull moment."
That may be an understatement.
Barnhardt, a Democrat, is, among other things, the former mayor of West Reading, a job he clearly enjoyed. But he is open about how different the office of mayor is from being a county official.
"Being a borough official gives you interaction at a governmental agency level, but when you take that next giant step from local to county it becomes more than a full time job, which it is."
Barnhardt sees his effectiveness in direct correlation to the passion he has for his work. "You could simply come in and attend the required meetings, but if you really want to get your hands dirty and get involved, it is fascinating all there is to learn.
"I've gotten a taste of knowledge - but there is so much more that I need to learn and understand. I'm on my way. I've found my fit," Barnhardt says. Going into his second year as commissioner, Barnhardt continues to have broad goals, number one being his desire to continue to control spending at the county level. Already this year the commissioners have passed a balanced budget, no easy feat in an economy in recession. They also managed to implement a county-wide hiring freeze, another tough bullet to bite.
But a commitment not to raise taxes and to instead control county spending is what motivates Barnhardt and his fellow commissioners.
"One of my biggest goals continues to be focusing on the weekly budget numbers and controlling spending, looking at ways to maximize our dollars. It's a constantly evolving process.
Because the county receives federal funds along with taxpayer dollars, Barnhardt takes the county's financial position extremely seriously, recognizing that appropriate allocation of funds is serious business. "We look at [the budget] every week, sometimes several times a week. It takes a lot of focus; obviously I think that's necessary.
"It was regrettable that we had to freeze hiring and eliminate some positions. That's not a knock on the needs of the county or the needs of department heads but a delicate balancing act in the midst of a recession," Barnhardt said.
Barnhardt notes two of the biggest financial hurdles this year were a major loss of pension funds due to the economic slowdown and the payment of approximately $1 million in assessment appeals (according to Barnhardt, 87 percent of appeals filed in 2008 were granted).
"The people of the county expect us to run this county in an efficient manner. People are easy to criticize government but I've seen a lot of businesses run less efficiently than this county."
Second on Barnhardt's "todo" list is continuing to streamline and implement the performance evaluation system for county department heads. Barnhardt says it is important to reward those working hard for the county, noting his belief that statistics don't bear out the money correlation - i.e., hard work equals better pay.
"The county operates the way it does is because of this group of people," Barnhardt says, and acknowledges again that it is important that "as a government, we recognize these people."
The new employee evaluation policy, which went into effect in 2007, established a three-tiered approach to applying merit increases, with employees receiving an increase based solely on their yearly evaluations. Recently, employees receiving an "exceeding expectations" evaluation received a merit increase of 3.5 percent, slightly above the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment.
Finally on Barnhardt's list is finishing up the Antietam Park area and focusing on all of Berks County's parks and recreation areas. A real "champion" of regionalization and open space preservation, Barnhardt insists that the future of the county's dozen parks and recreation areas relies on working with other counties, as well as townships and boroughs, in a cooperative effort to keep county parks clean, efficient, well-run and safe.
Barnhardt notes that the county has doubled the acreage of county parks and is looking to make parks not just passive but fully recreational. He also believes that working in tandem through cooperative efforts to create multi-community lease agreements is what he calls "exciting stuff," foreseeing opportunities to create new soccer fields and trails and with sharing those opportunities with other communities. "Hopefully we can then focus more on open space and trails," Barnhardt said.
Along with the daily ins-and-outs of the job, Barnhardt also takes other aspects of being commissioner seriously, stepping out perhaps more than necessary to get to know his community and the people in it. Recently he spent what he referred to as "a day in the life of" with local Children & Youth Office caseworkers.
"I went with them [CYS] to a potential child neglect case, and went to a facility and watched an interview of a 12-year-old girl who was a victim of rape. That was difficult. But I want to see and understand what I can do about what challenges our staff have, and am going to continue to do that throughout the coming year," he said.
Another of Barnhardt's focuses in the coming year will be the needs of law enforcement. Barnhardt was just reap-pointed to the Criminal Justice Advisory Board, and is a big supporter of the prison's proposed community re-entry center (currently on hold due to financial constraints, although plans for the center's future have not been tabled).
Additionally, Barnhardt has been actively involved with the implementation of the prison's new Prison Emergency Response Team, which went online this year, and is looking forward to seeing the results of a cooperative police study, known as PERF (Police Executive Research Forum). The study is a cooperative of 44 police agencies working together to find and advocate for better and more efficient public services, again, all part of Barnhardt's regionalization efforts.
Of course, there are disappointments as well, one of the biggest being the collapse of the Hay Creek Trail project, an effort to create a trail alongside a 9.7-mile track of abandoned railroad bed in southern Berks County. The trail, which was to be named for the nearby Hay Creek, was in the development stage, with the county receiving nearly $650,000 to fund the project.
Despite the disappointment Barnhardt is, as always, circumspect. "I have mixed feelings on the Hay Creek Trail. It is a disappointment. It came down to finances and the will of the people, and I think it would have been a dynamic addition to the parks and trails system. But that doesn't mean that in the future something cannot happen.
What does he see as his biggest personal accomplishment since becoming a commissioner?
"Without a doubt, working with the Berks County Veteran's Task Force and creating the Hall of Heroes website." The web-site, unveiled in time for Veteran's Day 2008, was a cooperative effort between Barnhardt, county veterans and the Berks County Veteran's Affairs Office.
According to the website's homepage, the site "permanently honors the sacrifice of the brave men and women of Berks County who died defending our liberty and freedom. The Hall of Heroes exists as an enduring tribute where their sacrifices are remembered and forever recognized." (For more information, please go to the website at http://www.berksheroes.com.)
Barnhardt is also continually seeking out volunteers to work in any number of areas in which the county could use assistance. "I can never emphasize enough the need for volunteers from the county, people that really give a darn about the future of this county, people who are willing to dedicate their free time. We have had very good support from people who want to serve," Barnhardt said.
Summing up his first year, Barnhardt sees many positives. "I'm very pleased with the respect we, as board members, show one another. We work well together, and we can come to the table with three ways to skin a cat but the three of us all agree in what is in the best interests of the county. None of us have individual agendas."
"I get out of bed each day and say look at all the things I have to accomplish today. There is a reason and a purpose, and I can have insightful conversations and have great dialogue about how to make this county government better than it ever has been.
"We can struggle through the tough times and we can be even better in better times.
I just want to grow and become an even better commissioner and want to help the county, because I'm proud of this county, proud of the workers and proud of the residents. I don't want to let anybody down."
Barnhardt, whose four-year term expires in 2011, does not hesitate when asked about his plans for a reelection bid. "Absolutely," he says.