Lebanon County commissioners learned Thursday that the county’s election bureau expects to receive a record number of mail-in and absentee ballots for the midterm election on Tuesday. 

Voter Registration/Elections director Sean D. Drasher told the commissioners at their bi-weekly meeting that the county is set to break the previous record, which was achieved in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also the first election to occur after passage of Act 77, also known as the Election Reform Bill.

With five days to go until the election, Drasher said 12,123 ballots had been mailed to voters who requested them and that 7,146 ballots, or 74 percent, and their return envelopes had already been scanned as accepted. Ballots that are submitted via mail are scanned and then secured in a vault until Election Day, which is the date they officially can be opened and counted.

Drasher added that another 2,000 absentee and mail-in ballots have been submitted to his office and were waiting to be processed that day. 

Judy Plummer is one of several county employees working in the elections office. A stack of mail-in ballots sits in front of her – these ballots were scanned and then secured in a vault, where they will remain until Election Day. (James Mentzer)

“Mail-ins, as you know, were slower (to be distributed) than what we wanted, but we’re caught up,” said Drasher, who added that the previous high ballot return rate was 82 percent in 2020. “And those (current) numbers are good. … We are trending to have a higher return rate than last year and maybe even crack the all-time (record.) So despite the slow response, we’re doing very well with returns.”

Concerning in-person voting, Drasher noted the distribution of voting machines was on schedule with about one-third, or 20 machines, having been delivered to their respective voting precincts around the county. 

County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said some inquiries had been received asking if mail-in ballots can be voided and a provisional ballot provided instead since some voters had decided to change their votes.

Drasher noted those provisional voting inquiries happened mid-week last week, which was in proximity to the only televised debate between U.S. Congressional candidates John Fetterman-D and Dr. Mehmet Oz-R. This was the first time either Drasher or Wolgemuth had experienced that question being asked by individuals wishing to recast their vote. 

“This was something brand new and it was something I never experienced in past elections, but people were asking if they could redo their ballot if they already submitted a mail-in ballot and had changed their mind. … The answer is no,” said Wolgemuth. “There were some around the state suggesting that if they want to redo it, they should do (via) a provisional ballot.” 

Drasher added that he had received a call from a national Fox News reporter asking him to be a secondary source for a story concerning an unnamed county commissioner located elsewhere in the commonwealth who was suggesting that provisional ballots be issued as a way to “update their ballot.”

“I said ‘no,’  and that’s when I went to Jamie to say, ‘What’s going on here?’” said Drasher. “That was a new one for me.”

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz asked Drasher for the return rate by party affiliation of mail-in and absentee ballots for the upcoming election. Drasher said that of the 7,146 ballots that were received, 59 percent of registered Republicans, or 2374 ballots, and 61 percent of registered Democrats, or 4083 ballots, had been returned. 

“Those are really good numbers and they’re pretty close,” replied Litz to Drasher’s answer. 

In a separate action related to the election bureau, the commissioners approved the submission of its Help America Vote Act (HAVA) grant application, which was in the amount of $11,355. The funds, which have already been received by the county, are earmarked for specific services that have occurred since passage of Act 77, and this vote was a formality to authorize the filing of the HAVA agreement. 

In other business, commissioners approved amendments to two Mental Health/Intellectual/Early Intervention provider contracts, one for fiscal year (FY) 2021-22 and the other for FY 2022-23. For FY 2021-22, two contracts were amended in the amount of $1,150 and four contracts in the amount of $55,481 were amended for FY 2022-23. 

Leahy noted prior to acceptance of the two amendments that neither requires the use of county taxpayer dollars to pay these additional expenditures since they are covered by their current allocations within their respective fiscal year budgets.

Leahy also presented for approval a request to submit a new program funding request application as part of a Community Mental Health Block Grant, which would be paid via the federally funded American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) program.

“It is specifically to ask for a comprehensive county crisis system planning, and this comprehensive plan will work to examine the existing crisis service system and provide a strategic plan to potentially implement a full spectrum of crisis services,” said Leahy, “including mobile crisis response teams and a crisis walk-in center.”

Leahy added that these two modalities are being requested by the state and that they be completed and implemented by 2028. The analysis will include a funding analysis and will address how to fund these two initiatives.

“The goal is to provide enhanced comprehensive crisis services in order to decrease the dependence on WellSpan’s emergency department, lessen the demands on law enforcement,  stabilize individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis and/or divert individuals through community resources before they reach the crisis level requiring in-patient treatments.”

Leahy noted that the state has flat-funded mental health services across Pennsylvania for 11 consecutive years, adding that the ongoing great need for these services necessitate ongoing sustainable funding to adequately provide the treatments that are in demand. 

Leahy requested and received via unanimous vote to apply for $175,000 to cover three components related to the state’s request for a comprehensive mental health plan:

  • The hiring of a consultant to complete the plan;
  • A contract with Consumer Satisfaction Services to conduct a community survey to ascertain the satisfaction level with current mental health services offered in Lebanon County; 
  • To assist WellSpan Philhaven with database upgrade expenses related to the increased required data elements required to track services that have been delivered to agency clients. 

When asked about costs for the two new services that may be implemented, Leahy replied that they would be “in the millions of dollars.”

“Starting out, just for the mobile response teams, we’re looking at somewhere in the range of just over $2 million — which will double our current funding for crisis intervention,” said Leahy. “For a walk-in crisis center, we’re really talking multi-millions of dollars.” 

During the human resources department’s report, the commissioners voted to approve a five-year collective bargaining agreement between the county’s detective association and the county, beginning Jan. 1, 2023, through Dec. 31, 2027.

The new agreement includes: wage increases at 5 percent for 2023-24, 4 percent for 2025, and 3.5 percent in years 2026-27; an increase in hours worked per week from 35 to 37.5 hours; increases to the annual health insurance deductibles and copays, change in minimum call-out hours from two to four per call; a probationary period change from six months with holiday pay upon hire to 90 days with no holiday pay until successful completion of the probationary period; and the removal of several articles/language to revise the contract language, such as grandfathering in for benefit accruals and post-retirement medical benefits.

The commissioners also voted to:

  • Grant an interest-free Next Generation Loan application, which is required for approval by the holders of the highest elected county official, in the amount of $552,000. The funding is for the purchase by Jaden and Amy Haller of a broiler farm in the 500 block of South Market Street in Newmanstown totaling $1.5 million. First Citizens Bank is providing a 240-month amortization loan at 5 percent interest totaling $348,000 and another $600,000 was provided through the first-time farmer loan program, which is administered by Farm Service Agency. The farm was purchased from Jaden’s parents, Ken and Diane Haller. It was noted Jaden has been employed by the farm since he graduated from high school.
  • Agree to renew an emergency tower site land lease between the county’s Emergency Management Services department and the Annville-Cleona School District. It was noted the agreement has been in effect for the past 15 years. 
  • Declined a hotel tax grant in the amount of $10,000 for Palmyra-based In the Net Sports Complex to purchase field grooming equipment. The commissioners voted no because the request was for a capital improvement project, which is not a permissible expenditure under the county’s hotel tax grant fund program guidelines. In a matter related to the tax funding program, the commissioners voted to limit funding requests through this program to $7,500 since staff has been warning the commissioners about the fund’s liquidity.
  • Provide a total of $44,000 in ARPA funds to Hanover Research ($40,000) to conduct a workforce needs assessment study and another $4,000 for administrative costs associated with the project. The funding request was made by Dianne Harlow of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.
  • Approved the minutes of their Oct. 20 meeting and the treasurer’s report, during which the commissioners gave permission to open two new accounts with First National Bank to administer their hotel tax grant fund program and for their 2021 bond issue.   

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