Every newly elected governmental body inherits the problems of the past administration plus the new ones that arise. This was true when Tony Mussare, Jack McKernan, and Rick Mirabito began as a new board of commissioners for Lycoming County in January 2016. The one big elephant in the room was the problem of budget deficits. Commissioner boards that preceded them were more fortunate by having a landfill that was producing healthy surplus revenues and a stock market that continually produced healthy interest on savings. In retrospect, these boards should have invested more wisely and taken fewer risks in real estate purchases, but everyone would make perfect decisions if it were possible to live backwards.
Dealing with the budget deficits alone would be hard enough for the present board, but there were other new problems that needed to be dealt with. Providing in some ways for health care for workers impacts every employer, and for the county, which employs over 500 people, rising costs for health care insurance was disparaging. The opioid epidemic has steadily grown, and as a result it impacts growing crime rates which causes burden to the courts, the probation department, care for dependent children covered by the Children & Youth department, etc. The costs run into the millions of dollars.
Commissioners Mussare, McKernan, and Mirabito (the 3 Ms) are all smart fellows. All three are successful businessmen and Mirabito is a lawyer and former state representative. But they have been tasked with enormous challenges to balance the concerns for the county’s pressing and growing social needs and the impatience of a tax-paying population that is highly displeased with tax increases.
This background is useful to keep in perspective as the 3M’s take aim at three big hot buttons in 2018. (There are a few more ‘warm’ buttons, but they will have to wait for later columns.) The ‘hots’ are the county golf course, the tourist promotion agency, and the probation day reporting system. Each of these are controversial, but they are more so because they are directly related to the budget busting problem. The commissioners have endeavored to take aim at these one by one in a deliberate and fair way.
At the regular County Commissioners Meeting on Thursday, January 25th, they took up the issue of settling on a vendor for day reporting system. A little background here is useful. The prison which was built in 1986 had outgrown its size within three years, and in the decades since, there has been a continual issue of what to do about this overcrowding. Lycoming County had been forced to ship their inmates to other counties, which had placed an enormous strain on the budget. There seemed to be no alternative but to build a new prison. But the Lycoming County Adult Probation Department worked with the county judges and district attorney’s office to develop the structure for an alternative to incarceration. This resulted in a contract to an outsourced agency named GEO Reentry Services in September of 2014.
By all metrics, this program has been extremely successful. It has totally eliminated the need and expense of shipping inmates to other counties and at the same time has reduced recidivism. But it has not been cheap, costing in the past $850,000 and has since been reduced in the current budget to $700,000 annually. Commissioner Mirabito, in particular, has been adamant that a contract of this size should be put out to bid and the services need to be better quantified. So it was in the early part of 2017, a Request for Proposals went out and in May of 2017 two replies were received, one from the current vendor GEO and the other a local service provider, Firetree, Ltd.
A committee made up of different county employees and community representatives was formed to review the two proposals and they came back in the fall of 2017 with a unanimous recommendation to maintain GEO as the contractor. From there, the commissioners reviewed the two companies and peppered them with questions that were being answered up to the late afternoon of January 24th, the day before the actual vote.
After much discussion and debate, the 3Ms were two M’s and one N (for No.) The final vote came in 2-1 to retain the GEO Reentry Services, with Commissioner Rick Mirabito being the dissenting vote. When it was all said it done, it wasn’t pretty, but it got done.