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

A panel of county commissioners laid out their priorities

  • Sam Dunclough

Pennsylvania Association of County Commissioners President Chip Abramovich, accompanied by other county commissioners, speaks at a press conference in Harrisburg on Jan. 25, 2023.

Sam Dunclough / WITF

Pennsylvania Association of County Commissioners President Chip Abramovich, accompanied by other county commissioners, speaks at a press conference in Harrisburg on Jan. 25, 2023.

Pennsylvania county commissioners have outlined a handful of policy goals they want state lawmakers to tackle in the coming year.

At the top of that list is making sure the county’s 911 services are funded — and it’s continuing Next generation 911 upgrade projects are complete.

“Achieving this priority will ensure that all Pennsylvanians and visitors to our great commonwealth continue to have a quick and efficient connection to 911 operations and services in every situation,” said Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association President Chip Abramovich on press conference Wednesday in Harrisburg.

While everyone in Pennsylvania who has a phone gets charged regularly an additional fee of $1.65 to pay the network for 911 calls, state law which create this financial flow expires next January.

Commissioners are also pushing for advance campaigning rules that would allow election officials to process mail-in ballots before the election. They also want to make the state’s mail-in voting deadline earlier.

Voters have the right to submit their application no later than one week before holding personal elections. County officials said that makes it virtually impossible for latecomers to receive their ballots in time to be counted.

“[We] need clear rules that allow for consistent application [of elections] throughout the commonwealth,” said Joe Kantz, who chairs the Snyder County Board of Commissioners. “Reforms are needed to resolve the ambiguities.”

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

Counties also want more state funding for community mental health programs. WITF investigation late last year found people with mental illness are increasingly ending up in county jails that are often not equipped to handle them. The study found that these people were regularly subjected to violence by guards trying to maintain order.

“A lack of adequate state funding that has failed to keep up with demand, along with rising caseloads and cost inflation, has pushed the community’s mental health system to the point of collapse,” said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick.

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

Dauphin County said about half of the people in its jail have a mental illness. Nearly one in three of the more than 450 uses of force by guards in 25 Pennsylvania prisons in the fall of 2021 involved someone who was in a mental health crisis or had a known mental illness.

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

This chamber has not surrendered for sitting because it is deadlocked on procedural rules. Speaker-elect Mark Rosey (D-Berks) is leading a task force that aims to solve this problem.

Abramovich said his group is working closely with incoming Gov. Josh Shapiro, a former Montgomery County commissioner, to accomplish those things. When asked about pushing these ideas through a nearly evenly divided House, Abramovich was upbeat.

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

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