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South Williamsport, PA
United States

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County Hall Corner: The Big “C”

I now have reached the Big C — the centennial article on my coverage of Lycoming County’s government in action. It has taken over 40 months, attendance in a couple of hundred meetings, engagement in hundreds more private meetings, and discussions with individuals and small groups, to ultimately produce these 100 articles for Webb Weekly’s

I now have reached the Big C — the centennial article on my coverage of Lycoming County’s government in action. It has taken over 40 months, attendance in a couple of hundred meetings, engagement in hundreds more private meetings, and discussions with individuals and small groups, to ultimately produce these 100 articles for Webb Weekly’s County Hall Corner. In this column, I have featured virtually every one of the 30 some county departments and their heads, shared their joys and successes, discussed some of the controversies and troubles, and focused much of my attention on the three fascinating men who serve as the county commissioners. It will be hard, but I would like to try to summarize these past two and a half years with five key things I have learned about county government:

1. There are really, really good people who work for the county (and they are smart, too!) The phrase “close enough for government work” is not accepted practice at Lycoming County. In fact, the exact opposite is often the case. The Veterans Office, headed up by George Heiges, is the most effective in the entire Commonwealth. The Fiscal Office, directed by Beth Johnston, has received awards for excellence for over 25 years! That list of distinction could go on and on. In countless interviews that I have held with county officials, I am continually impressed with the pride that these individuals take in their work. This leads me to my second point…

2. These county officials genuinely care about the people they serve. This is not obvious on the surface, but it appears countlessly in small ways. For example, when I ask a county worker what they are most proud of, almost every time it will not be about something operational, but about someone they helped. Many times in the county commissioners meeting, one of the commissioners will bring up an issue and relate it to a particular person who brought it to their attention. They really do care, and yet…

3. Their jobs are getting harder all the time. It starts with the commissioners who have to do their best to hold the line on the budget yet meet growing demands in services. The department heads have to continually do more with less. The most recent example lately was the unbelievable feat the Planning Department did over the past three years preparing a massive comprehensive plan on top of their normal operations — and forced to downsize by four personnel at the same time! Yet, as heroic these efforts are, it is inevitable that…

4. The increasing difficulty grows into frustration. It gets old working for Mission Impossible. The Adult and Juvenile Probation Department, in particular, find themselves continually faced with growing pressures and demands and fewer and fewer resources to meet them. The state parole system wants their officers to supervise a maximum of 50 parolees, whereas the parole officers for Lycoming County cover 120-130 cases each and one individual parole officer actually has 500! But here again, the amazing commitment comes through, as the national average turnover for probation officers is 4.2 years, yet Lycoming County has not had any turnover in the past nine years. With all these present troubles, the county officials also have to prepare for what’s ahead, and what they see are…

5. Storm clouds are on the horizon. It is surprising how often strategic planning issues are discussed, and for a good reason. The opioid crisis is just one example. Judge Butts along with Shea Madden of West Branch Drug & Alcohol Abuse Commission initiated the Heroin Task Force in 2014, years before the rest of the state woke up to the crisis. The Lycoming County Substance Abuse Coalition unveiled in June of this year is an outgrowth of that work. The same foresight is being shown in other future problem areas, not the least of which is the river levee, pension issues, and increasing public health and welfare concerns.

Bottom line — we might just have as good a county government as we could hope to have. No, it is not perfect of course, but I can safely say, from the county commissioners all the way down to the newest intern, they certainly appear to be giving their best. And that is the best we can ask for.

[Please note: This writer apologizes for any confusion on the previous two County Hall Corner articles on the county commissioners. They appeared with the second article in the series appearing first. Even after 100 submissions, I am still trying to get it right.]

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