Hundreds of veterans’ grave markers scattered across Pennsylvania have become difficult, if not impossible, to read. The Potter County Veterans Service Committee has embarked on an ambitious plan to rectify the situation. Members Bill Simpson, Paul Heimel and Dawn Wooster are discussing the recruitment of volunteers to “adopt” these headstones and be responsible for their maintenance so that these veterans are never forgotten. Committee members recently met with Andrew Lumish, a Florida man who has received national acclaim for launching a local gravestone-cleaning mission, for pointers. They are now drafting a plan to present to cemetery caretakers, veterans’ service organizations, historical societies and potential volunteers. A separate component of the plan is a database pinpointing the location of each veteran’s grave and listing biographical information on military veterans buried in Potter County. Seeking to generate support for the plan, Simpson (left) was guest speaker for the Leadership Potter County class on Tuesday. The committee is compiling a list of volunteers and others interested in being regularly updated on the project. Those seeking to be included on the list are asked to call 814-274-8290, extension 210 or 207.
Details of the proposed emergency services curriculum coordinated through the Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9 Career and Technical Center (CTC) in Port Allegany will be presented during a public meeting to be held at 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 28, at the Gunzburger Building in Coudersport. Leaders of the multi-county Essential Emergency Service Training Advisory Board will press their case and answer questions at Tuesday’s meeting. CTC would deliver the training at satellite locations in communities. Members envision some of the training in the Homeland Security Program could include not only firefighting and emergency medical technician skills, but also criminal justice, public safety and related subjects that can lead to employment in those fields.
“One major emphasis is to engage our youth and provide the training for them to become emergency first-responders,” explained Potter County Emergency Management Coordinator Glenn D. Dunn, a member of the board. “This will provide students with another choice of a career path and give them an opportunity to help mitigate some of the gaps in our volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services . . . It’s an excellent opportunity to invest in our youth, provide safety and a viable option to ensure that when you call 911, a qualified first-responder is on the way to help.”
Dunn said the program’s economic model includes community engagement as well as grants. Townships and boroughs have been approached for five-year funding pledges. Schools districts and county governments have also been approached.
Potter County was notified yesterday that it is the latest partner – and the smallest in the nation – to be accepted into the Stepping Up Initiative, a comprehensive plan to reduce the number of mentally ill men and women behind bars. Commissioners Doug Morley, Paul Heimel and Susan Kefover approved the required resolution at Thursday’s meeting. Potter County Human Services Administrator Jim Kockler and Commissioner Heimel will serve as liaisons linking the initiative with the local criminal justice system and human service agencies.
Counties have been forced into the position of having to provide treatment services to people with serious mental illnesses booked in county jails. Prevalence rates of serious mental illnesses in jails are three to six times higher than for the general population. Almost three-quarters of adults with serious mental illnesses in jails have co-occurring substance use disorders. Adults with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and upon release are at a higher risk of recidivism than people without these disorders. County jails spend two to three times more on adults with mental illnesses that require interventions compared to those without these treatment needs. Without the appropriate treatment and services, many people with mental illnesses continue to cycle through the criminal justice system, often resulting in tragic outcomes for these individuals and their families.
Potter County has developed a DUI Treatment Court, Drug Treatment Court and a pilot Pre-trial Diversion Program which helps people stay out of jail by offering alcohol/substance use disorder treatment and related services. A large proportion of men and women engaged in these programs have co-occurring mental health disorders. Through Stepping Up, the National Association of Counties, Council of State Governments Justice Center, National Sheriffs Association, and American Psychiatric Association are encouraging public, private and non-profit partners to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. Potter County has pledged its participation through the following strategy:
- Convene or draw on a diverse team of leaders and decision-makers from multiple agencies committed to safely reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in jails.
- Collect and review prevalence numbers and assess individuals’ needs to better identify adults entering jails with mental illnesses and their recidivism risk, and use that baseline information to guide decision-making at the system, program, and case levels.
- Examine treatment and service capacity to determine which programs and services are available in the county for people with mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use disorders, and identify state and local policy and funding barriers to minimizing contact with the justice system and providing treatment and supports in the community.
- Develop a plan with measurable outcomes that draws on the jail assessment and prevalence data and the examination of available treatment and service capacity, while considering identified barriers.
- Implement research-based approaches that advance the plan.
- Create a process to track progress using data and information systems, and to report on successes.
In asking the commissioners to support the plan, Kockler pointed out that Stepping Up does not require the establishment of a separate Mental Health Court, but rather can be implemented in a manner that allows for more effective functioning of the DUI/Drug Treatment Court for those offenders with co-occurring mental health disorders. He added that grants are available to support counties that commit to Stepping Up and could cover any added expenses, such as staffing, treatment or administration. Details on Stepping Up are available on the website, stepuptogether.org.
Potter County’s Water Quality Work Group held its first meeting of the new year this week with a crowded agenda. One priority is the ongoing attack against invasive species which continue to flourish along many of the county’s cherished waterways, choking out native vegetation and destroying habitat. Upper Allegheny Watershed Assn. volunteers are gearing up for round two of an aggressive battle plan against Japanese knotweed along Mill Creek, an Allegheny tributary. UAWA spokesman Frank Weeks said chemical treatment with herbicides and cutting are planned, as part of a Coldwater Heritage Partnership Grant, which is a collaborative of Pa. Fish & Boat Commission, the Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Trout Unlimited.
Meanwhile, the Genesee Headwaters Watershed Association will be applying herbicides to kill Japanese knotweed patches that have been rapidly growing near the Genesee Community Park and other sections in that district. GHWA spokesman Darrel Davis reported that Nikki Ryan, invasive plant project coordinator from the Bucktail Watershed Assn. in Cameron County, has been assisting the Genesee group.
Another invader is also bearing in on Potter County. Jared Dickerson, watershed technician with the Potter County Conservation District, informed work group members that the hemlock woolly adelgid is working its way upstream in the Pine Creek Valley and will eventually reach the upper branches in Potter County. Hemlock trees provide important environmental benefits — from shading of waterways to wildlife habitat — but they are no match for the insect once it gains a foothold, Dickerson said. He added that strategic plantings of hemlock seedlings are starting in some sections of the Pine Creek Valley to establish a new generation for future decades.
Jason Childs, manager of the Potter County Conservation District, summarized more than a half-dozen ongoing projects geared toward protecting water quality and enhancing public education. Among them are improvements being made to Ludington Run, a Genesee River tributary, to improve fish habitat; assistance to farms, including streamside fencing, mostly in the Cowanesque River headwaters where Chesapeake Bay protection regulations are being implemented; numerous streambank stabilization projects across the county; culvert replacement to improve fish migration in Gravel Lick Run; and others.
Triple Divide Watershed Coalition chair Charlie Tuttle reported that a contractor will soon be chosen to install 24/7 water quality monitors on many of the 16 springs, wells and surface water sources feeding 10 public water systems in Potter County.
Commissioner Doug Morley announced that county officials are beginning compilation of a new comprehensive plan, as required by Pa. Act 247, and will be seeking input from the Water Quality Work Group.
Potter County Planning Director Will Hunt reported on the plan for a detailed feasibility study to determine the future of the dam on the West Branch of Pine Creek in Galeton Borough and related issues.
Members heard that multiple organizations are working on plans to build large woody debris structures on Kettle Creek to improve trout habitat.
Childs briefed the group on proposals before the state legislature to impose a per-gallon fee on withdrawals from public water sources to establish a dedicated funding source for water protection activities in Pennsylvania.
Members also expressed their appreciation to Jim Clark of McKean County for his involvement with the work group and other organizations. Clark is retiring this month after many years of service as an educator and water specialist with Penn State Extension.
Attendees were Frank Weeks, Will Hunt, Earl Brown, Jason Childs, Charlie Tuttle, Jared Dickerson, Darrell Davis, Pete Ryan, John McLaughlin and Commissioners Doug Morley and Paul Heimel.
Next Water Quality Work Group meeting will be held at 8 am on April 17 at the commissioners office in the Gunzburger Building.
A Potter County native who now heads the Pa. Board of Probation and Parole is impressed with criminal justice reforms that have been put into place back home. “Potter County is a great example of what can be accomplished when you take the initiative,” according to Leo Dunn, appointed executive director of the board last March. He’s referring to the county’s “specialty courts” for criminal defendants with addiction to alcohol or other drugs, as well as a new pre-trial diversion program designed to reduce the number of criminal defendants who end up in jail. “There are a lot of new treatment resources available that counties such as Potter have elected to take advantage of, and with a great degree of success,” Dunn said. “Specialty courts, job training, housing options and substance abuse counseling are some of the tools that work . . . They’re having a very positive impact on reducing recidivism.” Number of inmates in the state prison system has fallen from 51,757 in 2012 to 49,900 today. Similar reductions have taken hold in a number of county jails.
Primary goal of the specialty courts and diversion program is to address individuals’ needs with a customized treatment plan and intensive supervision by the Potter County Probation Department. Senior Judge John Leete presides over both of the specialty courts. Overarching goal of the initiatives is to improve public safety by reducing the number of repeat offenders.
Dunn said one consequence of lowering the recidivism rate has been a marked increase in the number of people being monitored on probation and parole, which requires additional staff and caseloads at both the statewide and county levels. Since 2012, the ranks of state parolees grew by almost 6,500, to nearly 32,000. Dunn said the state has responded by hiring more staff, bringing the average parole agent caseload from 80 clients to 50. At the same time, Potter County has also added to its staff in the Probation Department.
“The more time officers have to spend with each individual on probation or parole, the better the outcomes will be,” Dunn explained. “We’re focusing on safely managing people in the community and getting them reintegrated.” Dunn said he’s aware that many smaller counties don’t have the financial resources to cover additional staffing. The Board of Probation and Parole is pushing to have $16.2 million in federal funds it currently administers to the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency, so it can be distributed to counties. “I’m very supportive of counties having more autonomy and being allowed to guide their own ship,” the director said. “We’ll continue to support local initiatives that keep people out of jail and on a path to success.”
State Representative Martin Causer spent most of Thursday morning discussing a wide variety of timely issues with the Potter County Board of Commissioners. He pledged his support for continuation of the shale gas drilling “impact fee,” which has provided townships, boroughs and the county government with significant revenue that would otherwise have to be generated by the real estate tax. Rep. Causer also said he is eager to be involved in any efforts being pursued locally to prevent two major mergers in the telecommunications industry from causing job losses at two Coudersport employers. Additionally, he reiterated his support for the Rural Regional College of Northern Pennsylvania.
Much of the discussion focused on Governor Tom Wolf’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget proposal and the significant issues lawmakers will have to address to achieve upwards of $3 billion in spending cuts or revenue generation the governor has called for to balance the $32.3 billion plan. The commissioners urged Rep. Causer to push for adequate state funding for the myriad of human services that county governments are mandated to provide. An indiscriminate 10-percent cut in state funds several years ago has continued to burden county taxpayers and all signs point to an increasing demand for services in the coming years.