As the Bucks County government calendar turns to 2014 and we face a new set of challenges, there is much to remember about 2013. For the second consecutive year, Robert G. Loughery served as chair of the three-member Board of Commissioners. For the seventh time in eight years, the adopted budget did not require a property tax increase for the residents of Bucks County. Also, for the first time since 2008, the County is forecasting a budget surplus for 2013.
On December 18, 2013, at the Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau, Commissioners Loughery, Charles H. Martin and Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia unanimously approved the $399.2 million operating budget for 2014. A copy of that budget is available for public review on the official county website, www.BucksCounty.org.
“We set a course two years ago to reduce the size of our government footprint,” Chairman Loughery explained during the final business meeting of the year. “On any given day, we are averaging eight (8) percent fewer employees than two years ago.” The chairman attributed that reduction to personnel attrition, a hiring freeze for non-essential employees and being “very selective” in any hires that have been made. He added that many of the measures that have been put in place are ongoing, or “something that we’ll be able to add to.”
The year 2013 also featured the affirmation of Bucks County’s first-ever Aaa bond rating by Moody’s Investors Service, which in March assigned a Aaa with stable outlook to Bucks County’s $63.75 million issuance of General Obligation Bonds, Series of 2013. Moody’s simultaneously backed the county’s Aaa rating on approximately $289.2 million of county and county-guaranteed debt outstanding.
Other broad themes for the year included ongoing construction of the county’s new Justice Center in the heart of Doylestown Borough, growth of multiple commissioner initiatives related to economic development, continued preservation of farmland and open space, collaboration with municipalities and first responders on the narrowbanding emergency communications project, another award for consumer excellence garnered by the Neshaminy Manor Long-Term Care Nursing Facility, and public health protection through clinics and public outreach during the 8th Annual Pandemic Flu Drill. Below is a closer look at the year 2013 in Bucks County government:
JUSTICE CENTER CONSTRUCTION ADVANCES AT A STEADY CLIP
Throughout the year, hundreds of E-Verified workers pushed the new Justice Center closer to reality. In March, steel workers placed the final piece of structural steel atop the Main St. entrance to the new facility. The commissioners joined members of the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas to mark the occasion.
The project, for which construction began in June, 2011, is slated to reach “substantial completion” by the fourth quarter of 2014. All court-related departments are expected to move into the facility shortly thereafter. It is the largest capital project in Bucks County annals, simultaneously creating the opportunity to move some outlying county departments into the current Courthouse/Administration Building within the foreseeable future.
The year 2013 included the August 28, 2013 removal of the construction crane that towered over the site for more than 13 months, the installation of windows throughout the building, and steady work on the interior features such as electric, HVAC, plumbing and drywall. The commissioners voted on multiple change orders involving the project, some of them related to the 1909 Armory on Shewell Ave. that has been preserved as part of the Justice Center.
During the November 20 meeting, the commissioners approved a $1.984 million contract with Security and Data Technologies, Inc. of Newtown to provide installation of the audio visual system of the new building. Other contracts involving office space for the 260,000-square foot facility will follow. As of late December, the Justice Center project was approximately 60 percent complete.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVES
On December 12, in Mt. Laurel, NJ, Chairman Loughery and Commissioner Marseglia joined county Chief Clerk/Executive Planning Commission Director Lynn T. Bush to accept the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s “Regional Economic Development Program of the Year” for the Bucks County Municipal Economic Development Initiative.
The Bucks County Municipal Economic Development Initiative (MEDI) was created by the county commissioners in August 2012. The MEDI assists municipal governments by devoting resources to revitalize downtowns, redevelop brownfields, enhance existing technology centers, support small scale businesses, improve older shopping centers and food enterprises, and encourage transit-oriented development. The staff of the Bucks County Planning Commission provides guidance, data, and expertise on commerce, zoning, land use planning, smart growth initiatives, transportation, community goals, and community character to municipalities that request help.
“The credit goes to our Planning Commission staff for taking on the challenge we (commissioners board) gave them to implement the recommendations of the (former) Bucks County Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB),” Chairman Loughery stated, thanking the DVRPC board and fellow elected officials from surrounding counties for the recognition.
In the first year of MEDI, Bucks County has worked with 26 municipalities, providing planning services, access to grant information and best practices, and applicable steps to make the communities vibrant places to work, live and visit. Projects in the county’s townships and boroughs include Main Street initiatives, parking analysis, transportation corridor plans, riverfront development standards, and more.
In addition, the Bucks County Industrial Development Authority is coordinating commissioner supported programs to revitalize and reuse older abandoned or underused industrial and commercial sites (Bucks Rebuilt), leverage private investment in downtowns and Main Streets (Bucks Renewed), align with Ben Franklin Technology partners on development projects (VC4BC), work with farmers, agri-business, farmers’ markets and tourism (Taste & Tour Bucks County), and support innovators and entrepreneurs with start-up ventures (Innovation Bucks County).
NESHAMINY MANOR EXTENDS LEGACY OF CONSUMER EXCELLENCE
During October, My InnerView (a product of National Research Corporation) announced a select list of skilled nursing homes around the United States as recipients of the 2012-2013 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” – was awarded to Bucks County’s Neshaminy Manor for the seventh consecutive year. The county government-operated facility was one of just eight Pennsylvania facilities to garner the Excellence in Action designation. Furthermore, it is the only Pennsylvania-based facility to earn the award in each of the last seven years.
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, “We are proud to recognize the service provided by the dedicated caregivers and personnel working in our nation’s long term care and senior living organizations. 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.”
“Neshaminy Manor continued to maintain an incredible ranking,” Chairman Loughery praised, thanking the administration and staff of the facility to their ongoing commitment to the well-being of the 360 residents at the facility.
FARMLAND AND OPEN SPACE PRESERVATION ROLLS EXPAND
On November 6, in the Courthouse Community Room, the commissioners approved preservation of the 161st farm added to the Bucks County Agricultural Land Preservation Program, the 76.21-acre Robert Pope Farm in Haycock and Richland townships. A corn and hay farm, the Pope tract is adjacent to and/or within one mile of 500 previously preserved acres. The board signed off on $480,123 plus settlement charges and adjustments to place a conservation easement on the property, lifting the total acreage preserved through the program to 13,744, according to County Agricultural Land Preservation Director Rich Harvey. The program’s goal is to reach 17,000 acres by the end of 2017.
Two other key farmland preservations during 2013 included the August 14 (Middletown Grange Fair business meeting) addition of the 56.14-acre Scheetz farm on Durham Rd. in Nockamixon Township, and the 97.23-acre Shull farm on Groveland Rd. in Plumstead Township. The Scheetz farm is a county/state funded preservation that marks the program’s fifth farm in Nockamixon Twp., and the county’s portion of the easement cost is $202,014 plus settlement charges and adjustments. The farm contains headwaters of the Rapp Creek. The Shull farm is a dairy farm that ranked 8th of 55 farm applications in 2012.
During February, the commissioners agreed on the county’s $111,300 portion of a Natural Areas Program Grant with the Heritage Conservancy for the purchase of an 84-acre easement in Nockamixon Township. The March 20 business agenda included the preservation of 64.19 acres of Municipal Open Space in Buckingham Township, on behalf of the Estate of Walter Trycieki. The county’s share of $427,053 represented 32 percent of the appraised value, which lies in a protected corridor of Buckingham and Solebury townships.
EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS NARROWBANDING PROJECT
Throughout the year, county Emergency Communications administrators worked with municipal officials and first responders to continue facilitating the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) narrowbanding conversion. Working with Motorola, Inc., the county assisted in the ordering, financing and delivery of new radio equipment, providing monthly updates through the official county website, as well. The approximate cost of the conversion – which is due by the end of 2014 – is approximately $40 million.
On December 4, the commissioners approved three significant contracts moving the project forward: a $1.290 million, 20-year lease agreement with Crown Atlantic Company, LLC of Canonsburg, PA for a tower site in Upper Saucon Township to deploy and install emergency radio equipment; another lease agreement with Crown Atlantic Company, LLC for a tower site in Haycock Township, and a $36,000/per 24 months, 15-year amendment with SpectraSite of Charlotte, NC for an existing tower site in New Hope Borough.
During the December 18 meeting, the commissioners agreed on two tower site resolutions related to the project, including a $1.083 million, 15-year license agreement with SpectraSite for a tower in Falls Township, and a $755,993, 15-year license agreement with SpectraSite for a tower in Lower Makefield Township. Other tower license agreements are planned throughout the county.
Ongoing training for those involved with the project will be coordinated through the county Emergency Services division, which is the clearinghouse for emergency management in Ivyland. The county also is coordinating with Montgomery County Emergency Communications department to assist first responders along the Bucks/Montgomery border.
COUNTY FORMS FIRST-EVER SUICIDE PREVENTION TASK FORCE
During the September 18 Commissioners’ Meeting, the board unanimously approved the formal commencement of the Bucks County Suicide Task Force. Commissioner Marseglia brought the matter to the public’s attention, noting that this new initiative will be assembled by the staff of the county Mental Health/Developmental Programs office.
According to Commissioner Marseglia, “The Suicide Task Force will cast a wide net for membership and must include professionals in private and public practice of mental health, clergy, educators, survivors, the Coroner’s office, funeral directors, medical professionals and emergency responders.”
While the Task Force will be structured to address ongoing needs of the community, a full report detailing its efforts, progress and future goals will be anticipated within the first three years. The goal of the Suicide Task Force is “to significantly reduce completed suicide in Bucks County by collaborating and completing actions designed to educate, prevent, respond to, and provide post-vention to suicide.”
8TH ANNUAL PANDEMIC FLU EXERCISE PROVIDES FREE FLU SHOTS
On Saturday, September 28, the Bucks County Health Department joined forces with the county Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) and the county Major Incident Response Team (MIRT) to conduct the 8th Annual Pandemic Flu Drill. Over a three-hour period at four walk-in locations (Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Holland Middle School in Holland, Tohickon Middle School in Doylestown and Calvary Church in Souderton), county staff, medical personnel and volunteers gave more than 4,500 seasonal flu vaccines. By location, the drill issued approximately 1,300 shots apiece at Truman High and Holland Middle schools, 1,100 at Tohickon Middle School, and 800 at Calvary Church.
The drill, which is open to residents three years of age and up, doubles as an emergency preparedness exercise as one aspect of the county’s annual participation in National Preparedness Month (each September). Members of the MIRT squad secured each of the four buildings five hours before the 11 a.m. start of the drill. In addition, members of the all-volunteer MRC operated the Holland site. “The volunteers truly made a difference, and are invaluable during a response,” noted county Health Director Dr. David Damsker. “We always need more non-medical volunteers to assist with these events.” Over the eight years of the drill, more than 25,000 free shots have been provided.
SHERIFF’S OFFICE EARNS STATE ACCREDITATION
During the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association 100th Annual Conference, June 26 in Harrisburg, the Bucks County Sheriff’s Office achieved a long-anticipated milestone. During the meeting, the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Committee (PLEAC) Assessment reports were scrutinized and the committee determined that the Bucks County Sheriff’s Office has met the standards to be recognized as an Accredited Law Enforcement Agency.
“On behalf of my hard-working staff, I am extremely pleased to earn this accreditation on behalf of the residents of Bucks County,” Sheriff Edward “Duke” Donnelly stated. “This process has validated the work we do on a daily basis.”
The Bucks County Sheriff’s Office was assessed on May 30-31, 2013. The Accreditation team consisted of law enforcement professionals from Lancaster, State College and Delaware County. These assessors, who are trained by PLEAC, conducted this two-day inspection to ensure that the Bucks County Sheriff’s Office is in compliance with the standards of excellence set forth by PLEAC.
CHANGES IN COUNTY MANAGEMENT PERSONNEL
During December, 2012, Scott Forster succeeded John Dougherty as the county director of emergency services. While Mr. Forster stepped into the role from his former position at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), the county mourned the loss of Mr. Dougherty, who held the Emergency Services director title for more than two decades. Mr. Dougherty passed away on November 2, and his loss was felt throughout the county. During his tenure, Mr. Dougherty helped the county create a comprehensive Emergency Operations Center in Ivyland, while also supervising the move of the county Emergency Communications headquarters from Doylestown to the EOC.
In addition, county Human Services Director Joseph Funk retired during October, 2013. Mr. Funk, who worked for the county more than 30 years, oversaw approximately half of the county budget and several of its largest departments such as Children & Youth, Neshaminy Manor, Mental Health/Developmental Progrms and the Health Department.