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Pennsylvania counties ask lawmakers to keep mental health, 911 services, and elections front and center

County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania President Chip Abramovic, flanked by other county commissioners, speaks at a press conference in Harrisburg on Jan. 25, 2023.
Sam Dunklau / WITF
County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania President Chip Abramovic, flanked by other county commissioners, speaks at a press conference in Harrisburg on Jan. 25, 2023.

Pennsylvania county commissioners are outlining a handful of policy goals they want state lawmakers to tackle in the next year.

Topping that list is making sure county 911 services are funded – and that ongoing Next Generation 911 upgrade projects are completed.

“Achieving this priority would ensure all Pennsylvania residents and visitors to our great Commonwealth will continue to have a quick and efficient connection to 911 operations and services in any situation,” County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania President Chip Abramovic said at a Wednesday press event in Harrisburg.

While everyone in Pennsylvania with a phone is regularly billed a $1.65 surcharge to pay for the 911 call network, the state law that set up that funding stream expires next January.

Commissioners are also pushing for pre-canvassing rules that would let election workers process mail-in ballots before elections. They also want to make the state’s mail-in ballot application deadline earlier.

Voters are allowed to hand in their application as late as one week before an in-person election is held. County workers have said that makes it virtually impossible for latecomers to receive their ballots in time to have them counted.

“[We] need clear rules that enable consistent implementation [of elections] across the Commonwealth,” said Joe Kantz, who chairs Snyder County’s Board of Commissioners. “Reforms are needed to resolve ambiguities.”

Despite bipartisan urging, state lawmakers have failed to agree to either of those changes since Act 77 – the state’s most recent election law update – was implemented four years ago.

Counties also want more state funding for community mental health programs. A WITF investigation late last year found people with mental health conditions increasingly end up in county jails, which are often not equipped to handle them. The probe found those people are routinely subjected to violence from guards who are trying to keep order.

“Lack of adequate state funding that has failed to keep up with demand, coupled with growing caseloads and cost inflation, have pushed the community mental system to the point of collapse,” Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick said.

“It is probably one of the most crumbled systems in all of our human service delivery systems,” he added.

Dauphin County has said around half of those at its jail have a mental health condition. Nearly one in three of the more than 450 uses of force by guards at 25 Pennsylvania jails during the fall of 2021 involved someone having a mental health crisis or who had a known mental health condition.

Hartwick said state lawmakers could use a $100 million pot of leftover pandemic relief money to help improve mental health services. House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) said she favored that idea last fall. Depending on how a trio of special elections set for Feb. 7 turn out, her party may control the state House by a razor-thin margin.

That chamber has not gaveled in for session because it’s deadlocked over procedural rules. Newly-elected Speaker Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) is heading a working group aimed at resolving that issue.

Abramovic said his group is working closely with new Gov. Josh Shapiro, once a Montgomery County commissioner, to get those things accomplished. When asked about pushing those ideas in a nearly evenly-divided House, Abramovic was upbeat.

“We see it as an opportunity. We can bring them together on common bipartisan issues,” he said.