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South Williamsport, PA
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County Hall Corner: The Coroner’s Conundrum

As noted in last week’s article, the issue of a permanent location for the Lycoming County Coroner’s office is one of the hottest hot potatoes that the county commissioners have faced in some time. The incredible irony is that all three of the commissioners are completely on board with securing a center for the coroners’

As noted in last week’s article, the issue of a permanent location for the Lycoming County Coroner’s office is one of the hottest hot potatoes that the county commissioners have faced in some time. The incredible irony is that all three of the commissioners are completely on board with securing a center for the coroners’ operations and have set aside the funds for it, but the what, where, and when for this facility is not so simple.

Coroner Kiessling spoke at the Thursday, October 27th meeting to weigh in on this ongoing issue that has been kicked down the road for a decade. The feasibility study for a coroner’s facility was done ten years ago, and yet, to date, it is still in the planning stage. Speaking on behalf of the need at the commissioners’ meeting were individuals such as Clinton Twp. Fire Chief Todd Winder and District Attorney Ryan Gardner voiced their concerns about the necessity for this facility and the ongoing imperilment of a continual delay in getting it off the ground.

The sense of urgency is not just the ongoing delay but also because the coroner’s office is facing problems that seem to multiply with each passing day. There is a quiet killer in our neighborhood known as heroin. Coroner Kiessling alluded to this in his address to the commissioners. For years now, the synthetic opioid pain reliever fentanyl has been a valuable drug for those with severe pain issues, but it has also been used by addicts as a super-high drug. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, it is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Kiessling noted that there have already been nineteen fentanyl-related deaths in the county this year.

But there is even more bad news on the horizon. A new drug, xylazine, is a horse tranquilizer that is being mixed with fentanyl and Kiessling noted to the commissioners that our toxicology labs cannot yet test for it. This is serious as where it has been able to be tested, such as in the city of Philadelphia, it showed up in 91 percent of opioid samples last year.

It is a rather crude analogy, but it is not too far of a stretch to imagine the situation that Coroner Chuck Kiessling is in right now is similar to the circus act of the guy who spins plates on poles without them falling off. When there were only a few plates for Coroner Kiessling to keep going, he could manage with a good team behind him to keep them on their poles.

But that was yesterday — today is something very, very different. There are more deaths, more difficult to deal with deaths, and more demands on the coroner’s office to deal with these issues. Throw in the chaotic COVID years for extra measure, and the analogy of Coroner Kiessling to a plate spinner needs to be replaced with an image of a magician who seems to be doing the impossible!

But there is hope, and it is in the practical wisdom of our leaders. Having grown up in this area but also having lived in major cities, I have seen a pattern in leadership. In large cities, it is professional, privileged officials who generally hold the positions of power. Our present state governor is an excellent example. Governor Thomas Wolf went to high school at the prestigious Hill School, went on to the Ivy League university Dartmouth where he graduated with his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude, received a Masters in Philosophy from the University of London, and a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He spent fourteen years in higher education after prep school. This was then followed by taking a job with his father’s business at the same time that he began to get involved in politics.

Compare this with the people who lead us in our area. They are educated, of course, but they also have lived in the real world. Commissioner Mirabito is a lawyer and was a law clerk for United States District Judge Malcolm Muir, but he also runs a business, as do Tony Mussare and Scott Metzger. District Attorney Ryan Gardner grew up on the family farm in Upper Fairfield Township before being drawn to the law, serving as an Assistant District Attorney for Lycoming County. Coroner Chuck Kiessling has a medical background before becoming coroner. These are all working people who were not as much shaped by credentialed elites in ivory towers as by the everyday common sense that seeks practical, pragmatic answers to the challenges they face.

And this is why there will eventually be a solution to the coroner’s conundrum, and it won’t come from a group of supposed experts as much as from hard-working, practical-thinking, financially-focused individuals who have a vested interest in this facility. These are folks that have had to work through difficulties and dilemmas as a part of everyday life. And they also sincerely care about their community — looking more to the next generation than to the next election.