Lebanon County commissioners approved Thursday a request from its Department of Emergency Services (DES) to apply for two grants designed to enhance public safety.
A $250,000 grant to fund the acquisition and implementation of a countywide law enforcement records management system would improve data-sharing between all 12 local police departments, the county’s sheriff’s office, and the Pennsylvania State Police, which has barracks in Jonestown.
“Right now, each police department maintains their own record-keeping system and there are some limitations with that, and there’s some additional overhead that we are trying to help eliminate,” said DES director Bob Dowd. “(The) first being cost. That’s very expensive and, ultimately, it’s the taxpayer that’s paying for that. So if we can bring this up to the county level, leverage the economies of scale and make it less expensive for everybody, that’s a great thing.”
Dowd said the new system would also make data sharing, which presents challenges among law enforcement departments, much easier.
Dowd said if the county is awarded the grant, then local police officers will log into a single countywide system to gain access to a plethora of data and the accompanying analytics. They also will have the ability to utilize heat mapping and readily access contact information.
“Law enforcement’s biggest tool is information,” said Jon Hess, chief detective with the Lebanon County Detective Bureau. “We can share it pretty quickly these days with email and other things, but certain things don’t come up via email, obviously.”
A highlight of the new system is the ability to share information in real time.
“If there is a major case in a certain jurisdiction, they’ll relay that to other jurisdictions via email or radio,” said Hess. “But if an officer in North Lebanon has access to Lebanon city’s information, they can know when they are going to deal with a particular individual or called to deal with an individual right away from looking at it in the database.”
Additionally, the system will inform police officers if that person has a particular need or a history of violence.
“They can understand that he may have a mental health history and they need to get a crisis worker rolling with that call or that he may have a violent history and they need to get additional officers,” said Hess. “So it’s safer for the public and safer for the officers.”
The use of heat maps, Hess added, means trends can be shared more quickly, especially concerning a crimewave, which could potentially be countywide since crime doesn’t respect municipal borders.
If the county receives the federal grant, Dowd hopes to have the system, which would be available to all county police departments at no additional cost to them, operational during 2023.
The second grant for $100,000 concerns the required five-year renewal of the Hazard Mitigation Plan that is due to be updated when it expires in 2023.
Dowd noted that there is normally a 25-percent cost share for the county, but added that for this particular grant cycle, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has indicated that they plan to utilize federally distributed America Rescue Plan Act and CARES funding to cover the county’s portion of the mandated program.
“The Hazard Mitigation Plan identifies countywide risks, hazards, and vulnerabilities that could impact safety and identifies mitigation measures and projects that could be funded to help reduce the impact of those,” said Dowd. “It’s necessary for any federal hazard mitigation funding to do things like repair dams, or install water retention. … And the required plan allows us to have access to funding for retention projects.”
In other county business, commissioners received the county coroner’s annual report, which included statistics for the cases the department investigated in 2021.
County Coroner Dr. Jeffrey A. Yocum said the rise in demands for cremations has increased the departmental workload since state law requires an investigation before a person can be cremated by a funeral home.
He said his department inspected 772 cremations in 2019; 898 in 2020, an increase of 126 over the previous year; and 980 in 2021, an increase of 82.
“This has created an unbelievable amount of work for my office staff,” said Yocum.
When asked if that increase was due to COVID, which included 93 death inspections for his department in 2021, he replied “some but not all.”
“It’s just that more people are turning to cremations from burials and I don’t think people realize how much work is involved in the investigation to clear these cases to turn them over to the funeral homes. We have to pull all of the medical records and it has created a lot of work for our office,” Yocum explained.
When asked how much cremation investigations cost the county, Yocum said the county is actually reimbursed $50 for every cremation it investigates, which he jokingly added is immediately turned over to county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth. Not missing a beat, Wolgemuth immediately replied, “(turned over to) the county,” and added with a smile that he wanted his statement to be placed in the public record.
On a more serious note, Yocum said that his department investigated 498 deaths in 2021, of which 411 were determined to be of natural causes. That number was in line with 2020 when 497 deaths were investigated.
James R. Donmoyer Jr., director of the Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, said a total of 31 deaths in 2021 were attributed to drug-related causes, of which 26 were caused by the consumption of illegal substances containing fentanyl. (Of the other five OD deaths, four were from cocaine and one from amphetamine/methamphetamine.)
Fentanyl, Yocum explained, is commonly added to a plethora of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances that are sold by dealers to their clients.
“Not only am I the coroner, but I have expertise in the drug and addiction field, I have my certification in drug and addiction medicine,” said Yocum. “I can tell you, speaking to drug addicts every day like I do, that the drug addicts pretty much know that everything they buy has fentanyl in it.”
Donmoyer noted that the number of overdose deaths in Lebanon County was similar to those reported from around the commonwealth, and added that this area saw fewer deaths from the previous year.
Donmoyer said the Stronger Together Task Force is very active, conducting prevention events in various communities and said the task force uses ZIP code-based overdose data to target events in communities where greater awareness is needed.
“They’re in the field, they’re in the streets, they’re doing grass-root types of things, so I want to commend the task force for their work,” he said.
Donmoyer added that Narcan distribution has also helped lower the number of deaths, saying the commission distributed 631 kits last year, which he noted is “a lot more than they distributed in year’s past.”
Holly Leahy, administrator for Mental Health/Intellectual Disablities/Early Intervention, reported that there were 17 suicides in 2021, down from 21 in 2020. She added suicide by gunshot was by far the leading method at 11 in 2021.
Following the reports from those three departments, commission Chairman Robert Phillips commended the work the coroner’s department does, saying “the volume they do is just amazing.”
“The coroner’s job is not a part-time job, it’s 24/7, and I am the one who gets all of those calls,” said Yocum, in response to Phillips.
At the beginning of the meeting, the commissioners held their second reorganization meeting of the year, which was necessitated by the death of Commissioner William Ames in December.
For the board of commissioners, Phillips was chosen as chairman, new commissioner Michael J. Kuhn was named vice chair, and commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, secretary.
Other board positions and their new assignments are:
Chairman: Commissioner Phillips
Vice chair: Commissioner Kuhn
Secretary: Commissioner Litz
Chairman: Commissioner Litz
Vice Chair: Commissioner Kuhn
Chairman: Commissioner Phillips
Vice Chair: Commissioner Kuhn
Secretary: Commissioner Litz
The commissioners also voted to:
- Transfer the administration of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program contract from Community Action Partnership to the Lebanon County Housing Authority beginning April 1.
- Approve a hotel tax grant fund application in the amount of $39,750 for Swatara Watershed Inc. to address flooding in 2018 that extensively damaged the Bordner Cabin. Because Litz was on that organization’s board at the time of the flooding event, she abstained from voting on the funding request. The request passed 2-0.
- Provide $10,000 via the hotel tax grant fund to Gretna Theatre for marketing and strategic planning for their upcoming 2022 season.
- Issue a prometheus proclamation to the family of Richard A. Bleistine in honor of his service to the community as a volunteer firefighter, his country in the U.S. Navy from 1951 to 1959 (four years in the active navy and four years in the reserve as a Gunners Mate 3rd Class), and in recognition of his participation in more than 12,000 military funerals at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery.
- Grant three real estate tax exemptions for qualified military veterans.
- Accept the minutes of the Feb. 17 meeting.
- Accept the treasurer’s report.
- Approve requested conferences and seminars.
- Grant the various personnel transactions as presented by the Human Resources Department.
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