Bucks County Government 2012 Year In Review: Steady Progress During Another Difficult Year
For Bucks County government and its employees, the year 2012 carried a strong mandate to reduce the footprint of government, to plan efficiently, and to avoid passing a budget shortfall to the 625,000-plus residents of the county. It also doubled as Commissioner Robert G. Loughery's first year as chairman of the three-member governing board.
Ultimately, the year featured steady, inexorable construction progress on the county's new Justice Center in Doylestown Borough, the establishment of the Bucks County Municipal Economic Development Initiative, the conduct of another large-turnout General (Presidential) Election, and emergency management of Hurricane Sandy and its devastating after-effects. Perhaps most significantly, on December 19, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a $390.44 million Fiscal Year 2013 operating budget that did not raise county property taxes for the sixth time in the last seven years, while also adding to the General Fund balance for the first time in five years.
Through targeted efforts, which included cost containments and workforce reduction, county administrators crafted the 2013 budget with an eye to the future, as well. As Chairman Loughery told meeting attendees during the final business meeting of the year at the Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau in Bensalem Township, the 2013 budget puts the county "in a stronger position than we were last year. We have made smart decisions."
The commissioners' bi-monthly meetings again featured a wide array of locations, including Lockheed Martin, ITT Technical Institute, Dow Chemical Company, the annual visit to the Middletown Grange Fair, Crossing Vineyards, Wood Services, and the Lower Bucks Chamber of Commerce. Many of these sites were selected for their significance to the economy of Bucks County.
The year also featured several significant personnel appointments and retirements, including the hiring of Solicitor Michael Klimpl and the departures of county Emergency Services Director John Dougherty and Penn State Cooperative Extension Director Mike Fournier. During December, the commissioners named Scott Forster to replace Mr. Dougherty.
The county workforce was pared through a combination of attrition and layoffs, resulting in a headcount of just under 2,400 employees by the end of 2012. The county's Position Review Committee (PRC) played the administrative role in managing this process.
Throughout the year, county Emergency Communication officials worked with municipal officials to continue making progress on the federally mandated Narrowbanding Project. County communications also included the rollout of the official Bucks County government Facebook page.
With the many challenges of 2012 in the rear-view mirror, the calendar change offers a time to reflect on the accomplishments of the Bucks County workforce (which currently totals just under 2,400 employees). Following is another snapshot look at 10 themes that shaped the past 12 months of county government:
1) ONGOING JUSTICE CENTER CONSTRUCTION
Much has changed since Commissioners Charles H. Martin and Loughery joined President Judge Susan D. Scott to break ground on the $84 million Justice Center project on July 19, 2011. At the end of 2012, the project is approximately 30-percent complete, and significant progress has been made on the structural steel of the building's frame. Throughout the year, employees and Courthouse visitors grew accustomed to the 177-foot construction crane that extends over the site. Foundation work included stabilization of the early 1900's-era Armory, which will be incorporated into the facade of the new building. Favorable weather conditions during the fall helped workers make up some time, and the project is slated for completion during 2014 - with occupancy for court related offices to follow.
As of late December, 2012, steel work is at the fifth level (above ground). Structural steel should top out, weather permitting, near the end of January. Precast structure for the exterior walls should start being installed in about eight weeks. There are 14 more 260-yard concrete pours needed to complete the interior floors. The construction site has been tented with plastic to allow for heating during winter work.
At the annual Grange Fair business meeting during August, the commissioners approved a $172,935 design contract for Phase I and II of the County Administration Building Rehabilitation Project. They unanimously awarded the contract to PSA - Dewberry Design PC of Fairfax, VA. According to Chairman Loughery, there were 13 proposals submitted for the project, and the commissioners met with three finalists. Commissioner Martin noted that Dewberry has extensive experience with Courthouses and government buildings, and their price was competitive. The Administration Building will be rehabilitated in conjunction with the construction of the new Justice Center across Main St.
2) HURRICANE SANDY
For the second time in as many years, Bucks County was battered by a fall storm of tropical origin, this time just before Halloween. Hurricane Sandy forced an extended opening of the county Emergency Operation Center in Ivyland and wreaked havoc with power lines and trees. It also closed the Bucks County Courthouse for two days. Chairman Loughery signed a Declaration of Emergency on Sunday, October 28, in anticipation of the county response and recovery effort. He also reminded residents that storm notification alerts are always available by signing up for ReadyNotifyPA.org, which is linked to the home page of the official county website,www.BucksCounty.org. Chairman Loughery and Commissioners Martin and Marseglia joined Mr. Dougherty in the EOC throughout much of the storm event.
At the height of the storm, approximately 200,000 electric customers experienced a loss of power.The American Red Cross helped staff shelters at Palisades High School, Council Rock North High School and Pennsbury High and later at the Bristol Township Senior Center. The effects of the storm remain visible in many places throughout the county, but the only saving grace is that the heaviest rains did not impact Bucks County. County residents also had ample time to prepare for the hurricane, which had been forecast several days in advance. Nonetheless, Chief Operating Officer Brian Hessenthaler called the widespread power outages "unprecedented in Bucks County."
Within the five-day period October 26-30, almost 18,000 residents of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties signed up to receive emergency alerts through the public safety notification system, www.ReadyNotifyPA.org. That figure included 3,770 who signed up for Bucks County specific alerts.
3) COMMISSIONER MARTIN: LONGEST TENURED COMMISSIONER IN BUCKS COUNTY HISTORY
With his 6,130th consecutive day of service to the County of Bucks taking place March, 2, 2012, Commissioner Vice Chairman Charles H. Martin officially supplanted former Commissioner Sandra A. Miller as the longest tenured commissioner in Bucks County's 330-year history. He was honored during the March 7 Commissioners' Meeting, as the day was proclaimed "Charles H. Martin Day" throughout the county. Commissioner Martin, who was appointed on May 22, 1995 and has served 10 times as chairman of the Board of Commissioners, has served the 625,000 residents of Bucks County during an unprecedented time of capital progress, fiscal stability and land preservation.
"Being a Commissioner is an extremely interesting job," Commissioner Martin stated. "It really has been an honor to serve as a Commissioner for the years that I have."
Commissioner Miller served 6,129 days as commissioner between March, 1991 and January, 2008. She and Commissioner Martin worked together for 14 of those years - or more than 4,500 days. During 2006, Commissioner Miller passed former Commissioner Andrew Warren, who previously held the Commissioners' service record of 5,580 days. Commissioner Warren served Bucks County from January 7, 1980 until April 17, 1995.
4) NESHAMINY MANOR CONTINUES TO EARN ACCOLADES
My InnerView, a product of National Research Corporation, announced a select list of 610 skilled nursing homes around the United States as recipients of the 2011-2012 Excellence in Action awards. This honor, which recognizes nursing homes that achieve the "highest levels of satisfaction excellence - as demonstrated by overall resident or employee satisfaction scores that fall within the top 10 percent of the My InnerView product database" - went to Bucks County's Neshaminy Manor for the fifth consecutive year. The county government-operated facility was one of just nine Pennsylvania facilities to garner the Excellence in Action designation - and one of only five "Customer Award" winners in the Commonwealth.
"For five consecutive years Neshaminy Manor has been in the 90th percentile for customer (resident) satisfaction," explained Neshaminy Manor Administrator Evelyn M. Kozlowski, RN-BC, NHA. "That is an amazing achievement, not just the 90th percentile but to sustain that level of service for the residents of our community shows an intense level of commitment from all levels of our staff."
For a nursing home to qualify for the Excellence in Action awards, the facility must have achieved minimum favorable response rates regarding the question, "What is your recommendation of this facility to others?" According to Susan L. Henricks, president and COO of National Research Corporation, "The most important takeaway regarding the Excellence in Action awards is that skilled nursing award recipients were first recognized by their own residents and employees through excellent satisfaction survey scores. This also underscores the importance for long term care providers to understand the value of measuring quality over time."
5) BUCKS COUNTY MUNICIPAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE
One of Chairman Loughery's priorities is economic development. To that end, he joined county administrators to announce a new initiative that will focus Bucks County government resources on ensuring the continued and expanded economic prosperity of Bucks County and its 54 municipalities. Bucks County's adopted economic development goals were established in the 2009 report of the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB), An Action Plan for Progress. One of those six goals - engaging our municipal partners - is the foundation of this new program.
The initiative is intended to have applicability for every municipality in Bucks County. From rural farming communities in upper Bucks County to the crossroads shopping centers and borough Main Streets in central Bucks to the older industrial areas in lower Bucks County, each community needs to look ahead at the businesses and enterprises that create jobs, community character, and the ability to provide needed community services for residents. This program is voluntary for all Bucks County municipalities.
Bucks County will assist municipal governments by devoting resources to ensure Bucks County's continued economic vitality and growth. The county Planning Commission staff will provide guidance, data and expertise on commerce, zoning, land use planning, smart growth initiatives, transportation, community goals and community character to municipalities that request help. Hallmarks of the program will include a wide array of targeted services, access to grant information, information on what other agencies and groups are doing and how this may affect municipal efforts, and applicability.
By the end of the year, participating municipalities included Bristol Borough, Yardley Borough, New Britain Borough, Lower Southampton Township, Dublin Borough, Chalfont Borough, Northampton Township (Holland), Perkasie Borough and Bensalem Township. For more information or to sign up for the program, please contact the Planning Commission at 215-345-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
6) PEACE CENTER TAKES LEAD ON ANTI-BULLYING EFFORTS
On April 9, Commissioner Diane Marseglia and Barbara Simmons, Executive Director of The Peace Center in Langhorne, joined District Attorney David Heckler to announce the establishment of the Bullying Resource and Call Center, an integrated approach to help schools, families and police better assist victims during this new age of cyber-bullying. The Peace Center's tireless work bridging the gap between schools and community through peace education created the foundation for the Call Center, which strives to create a safe environment of acceptance and tolerance within the community.
"Today we face bullying that has been magnified by two things," noted Commissioner Marseglia. "The ability to bully through electronic communication 24 hours a day, and adults, both those who identify themselves and those who act as anonymous cowards, who say anything they want while children watch and listen."
Bullying now extends beyond the schoolyard, being amplified by 24- hour online harassment, making it difficult for parents, school districts or even local police to intervene. The Peace Center Bullying Resource and Call Center is not a hotline; however, it will help families, schools and police establish a game plan to both assist the target in dealing with bystanders and address the bully's behavior so the problem does not persist. "Bullies thrive where authority is weak, so in Bucks County we are providing that authority," stated Marseglia.
The Bullying Resource and Call Center will be a place where schools, victims and parents can turn to for direction. The Center will work with both the victims and the bullies, while teaching healthy experiences.
7) ANOTHER EFFICIENT NOVEMBER GENERAL ELECTION
On Tuesday, November 6, the General Election turnout was strong, as almost 320,000 registered voters cast Presidential ballots. The turnout of 73.39 percent included 319,407 of Bucks County's 435,611 registered-voter total. Chairman Loughery praised the Board of Elections and its staff for the conduct of the election. During the months leading up to the election, employees from various departments assisted with the enormous workload that accompanies each Presidential election. Ultimately, the vast majority of results were processed and posted to the official county website before midnight.
Complicating the election preparations were the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy, which necessitated measures to ensure that all 304 voting districts had power restored by November 6 - particularly in the upper portions of the county. The Board of Elections and Voting Machines department worked with local utility companies and each individual polling place to guarantee those sources.
This was the second Presidential election conduct on the county's Danaher electronic voting machines. During the final meeting of the year, Commissioners Loughery and Martin approved a pair of one-year contracts for the county's 765 voting machines - one for extended warranty coverage and one for software maintenance.
8) OPEN SPACE & AGRICULTURAL PRESERVATION CONTINUES
The year 2012 included the preservation of the county Agricultural Land Preservation program's 150th farm - . The program continues to work toward its goal of 17,000 preserved farm acres by the end of 2017, and a list of almost 60 farms remain on the waiting list for this popular program. On the evening of March 21, the commissioners voted unanimously to preserve the 135.16-acre Clarence and Kenneth Bowman farm on Hill Rd. in Bedminster Township. The Bowman farm was the 150th farm preserved by the Board of Commissioners over the last 23 years - and the 50th preserved since 2006.
By the end of the year, a pair of November farm preservations in Springfield Township preservations lifted the total number of farms in the county stockpile to 155 encompassing 13,260 acres. According to county Agricultural Preservation Director Rich Harvey, the program has preserved 22 farms in Springfield Township that total more than 1,500 acres.
Open Space Coordinator Kris Kern also was busy during 2012. On April 4, she presented three properties to the commissioners for approval. The included two Municipal Open Space grants (Lower Makefield Township and Morrisville Borough) and a Natural Areas Program grant (Springfield Township) that will protect more than 81 acres of Bucks County land. On May 16, at Archbishop Wood High School, the county Open Space rolls added 52 acres in Buckingham Township following the unanimous approval of a $401,730 grant for the Comly Farm. The property, a turf business which has been operated by the Comly family since the 1950's, has considerable road frontage within the township. The county also preserved just over two acres in Yardley Borough that will serve as a riverfront park.
9) VETERANS ID DISCOUNT CARD PROGRAM THRIVES
Since its initial rollout on November 2, 2011, the Bucks County Veterans ID Discount Card Program has been an enormously popular endeavor with the veterans' community. Over the past 13 months, the Recorder of Deeds staff has conducted dozens of sign-up events at locations throughout the county. Those efforts have been in addition to the regularly scheduled office hours on the second floor of the Bucks County Courthouse.
As of December 27, the program had enlisted 5,725 participants and 419 county businesses have agreed to provide a discount ranging from 5 to 20 percent to those holding the Veterans ID Discount Card. The program has been a model for other counties in the region, as Delaware County recently debuted its card program. To register a business to participate in the Veterans ID Card Discount Program, please contact the county Recorder of Deeds office at 215-348-6017 or visit www.BucksCounty.org to fill out a form stating intent to take part. A list of participating businesses is available on the official county website, www.BucksCounty.org, as well.
10) PANDEMIC FLU DRILL GOES MOBILE TO PROTECT RESIDENTS
On Saturday, September 30, the Bucks County Health Department held its seventh annual Pandemic Flu Drill, at three drive-through locations throughout the county. The drill, designed to simulate an actual emergency situation, was intended to practice emergency response skills while vaccinating thousands of residents for the upcoming flu season.
Approximately 260 staff and volunteers, from the Health Department, Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) Volunteers, Community Volunteers, Major Incident Response Team (MIRT), and contract nurses, participated in the drill.
"I would like to thank the staff, and especially the volunteers and the public that took time out of their busy Saturdays to participate in the Flu Drill," said Commissioner Chairman Robert Loughery. "I am especially grateful to the nurses who talked my youngest daughter through it, helping alleviate her fear of the 'dreaded' shot, making the whole process seem smooth."
At the three locations, close to 4,000 vaccinations were administered, about1,200 at Sellersville Fire Company, 1,200 at Northampton Fire Company and 1,500 at Levittown Fire Company #2. While those were being dispensed, behind the scenes there were also two emergency scenarios being drilled - stolen supplies and line jumpers - which staff and volunteers, as well as MIRT used to hone their proficiency, preparing in the case of real emergencies.