On Saturday, January 10, 2015, a new era dawned for court operations in Bucks County with the dedication and ribbon cutting of the new, 285,000-square foot Justice Center at 100 N. Main St., Doylestown. During a ceremony that featured the judges of the Court of Common Pleas, commissioners and row officers current and past, and elected County row officers, the President Judge Hon. Jeffrey L. Finley welcomed residents to the Ceremonial Courtroom 410. The event was the culmination of a series of capital projects – the largest in County annals - spanning more than a decade and including a 1,200-space parking garage that opened during 2010.
“It’s an auspicious and historic day for Bucks County,” said Commissioner Chairman Robert G. Loughery, who in 2015 served his fourth consecutive year as chair of the three-member board that also features Charles H. Martin and Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, LCSW. “We are part of history today. I know this facility will serve the residents of Bucks County and the judiciary well into the future.”
President Judge Finley focused his remarks on the steady growth of Bucks County since the former Courthouse/Administration buildings were completed in the early 1960’s. He cited increased court requirements, security issues, and enormous changes in technology, praising leaders of the project and his president judge predecessors the Hon. R. Barry McAndrews, the Hon. David W. Heckler and the Hon. Susan D. Scott for their “vision and perseverance.”
Commissioner Martin, who has served on the board since May, 1995 – or longer than any other commissioner in County annals - traced the Justice Center project back to a 1999 analysis of future space needs for the County courts. Describing the new facility as “tasteful but not overdone,” the veteran commissioner observed: “The motto has been to do it right, not necessarily to do it fast.”
The ceremony was followed by a series of ribbon cuttings in the two-story glass lobby of the 285,000-square-foot building, which features space for all of the County’s court-related department personnel to conduct business. It is the fourth courthouse built in Doylestown Borough, following successive facilities erected in 1812, 1878 and 1960-62. On Sunday, Jan. 11, more than 1,000 members of the public enjoyed an open house opportunity to tour the sparkling new facility.
In addition to the long-anticipated Justice Center opening, Bucks County government achieved several milestones during 2015, a year that featured affirmation of a pair of coveted “Triple-A” bond ratings, a fourth consecutive year with no property tax increase for county residents (a streak that also includes nine out of the last 10 years), the approval of the 15,000th Agricultural Land Preservation Program acre, and the October cutover of the new “narrowbanding” emergency communications radio system.
Following comprehensive financial reviews during 2015, the County continues to hold AAA ratings from two of the largest credit rating agencies in the country, Moody’s Investor Services and Standard & Poor’s. That status has led to cost savings in several borrowings/refinancing efforts. The commissioners joined Chief Operating Officer Brian Hessenthaler to praise Director of Finance and Administration David Boscola and his team for their work as financial stewards on behalf of more than 630,000 Bucks County residents.
Below is a closer look at the year 2015 in Bucks County government:
Narrowbanding Emergency Communications Cutover
The new radio system, or “narrowbanding” project, commenced during June, 2010 as a result of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate. Though that mandate was lifted, Bucks County made the investment to replace the existing 500 MHz radio system and install a state-of-the-art 700 MHz digital radio system. This project has provided the emergency response community with the most modern communications network in the region, as Bucks County was the first in southeast Pennsylvania to complete the transition. The system “cutover” took place in three phases on Sunday, October 18.
Although the new system budget totaled $41.94 million, it came in approximately $730,000 under the budgeted amount. It features 24 tower sites as opposed to 19 in the former system. The new digital equipment has a higher voice quality that makes transmissions stronger and louder. It is actively monitored by the Motorola Corporation. It consists of approximately 5,000 radios for police, fire and emergency medical responders that accounted for $15 million of the $41.9 million cost.
Also, during August 2015, the commissioners joined the Emergency Communications department to announce the availability of a text to 9-1-1 service for situations when calling 9-1-1 in an emergency is impossible. Currently, County 9-1-1 dispatchers receive about 2,600 calls daily, and almost two out of three are from wireless phones. “As the public continues to go mobile, the County must continue to commit to initiatives that follow suit,” Chairman Loughery said. Residents are urged to use this text to 9-1-1 service only when calling first is not an option.
Property Taxes Remain Level for 9th Time in 10 Years
On Wednesday, December 16, at the Bucks County Visitors Center in Bensalem, the commissioners continued an annual tradition by not raising property taxes for the residents of Bucks County. For the fourth consecutive year and ninth in the last 10 (dating back to December, 2006), Commissioners Loughery, Martin and Ellis-Marseglia passed a zero tax-increase operating budget for the next year. The final 2016 figure of $402.566 million met unanimous approval from the board members. The board was able to hold the line despite more than five months of budget impasse at the state level.
“The budget process continues to be a challenge every year due to the economic times we are in. Although economic indicators are beginning to show an overall recovery, we in the government sector usually do not feel the impact of that uptick for a year to two years,” Chief Operating Officer Hessenthaler said.
Bucks Becomes First in U.S. With Countywide DNA Database Sharing
During early October, the Bucks County Police Chief’s Association joined the Board of Commissioners and Assistant District Attorney Matt Weintraub to launch a new countywide initiative in the field of DNA testing. In conjunction with Bode Cellmark Forensics of Lorton, VA, the program is known as “BodeHITS.” It is the first program of its kind in the United States – uniting all 40 Bucks County municipal police departments to capitalize on the latest forensic technology to fight crime.
Bensalem Township launched DNA testing as a crime prevention and prosecution tool back in 2010. Since that time, Bensalem has completed more than 400 cases using Q-Tip swab kits. The program will be partially funded by a $221,105 grant application through the Redevelopment Authority of Bucks County. It allows for a multi-jurisdictional approach to fighting crime and arresting criminals as quickly as possible. More significantly, this approach prevents crime from happening and thereby spares tomorrow’s potential victim from the pain associated with crime. Assistant DA Weintraub noted that the DNA project combats crime not “with a gun or a taser, but with a Q-Tip.”
Police know that criminals often cross jurisdictional lines. This collaborative effort will allow police from multiple departments to work on cases collectively, submit forensic evidence to the lab and have the technology link crime scene evidence from multiple jurisdictions together and also identify the criminals who committed these crimes.
Agricultural Land Preservation Program Crests 15,000-Acre Barrier
For the last two-and-a-half decades, agricultural land preservation has been a consistent priority for the Board of Commissioners. Although members of the board have changed during that period, the totals of preserved farmland have increased by an average of 500-1,000 acres per year. On Wednesday, August 12, on the entertainment stage of the 67th Annual Middletown Grange Fair, Commissioners Loughery, Martin and Ellis-Marseglia, LCSW added three properties totaling more than 130 acres to the Bucks County Agricultural Land Preservation Program. Those preservations lifted the program’s preserved land base to 182 farms comprised of 15,060 acres.
“This is a special day,” said County Agricultural Land Preservation Director Rich Harvey, who has coordinated the program and the County Agricultural Land Preservation Board since its inception in 1989. After the commissioners voted unanimously to spend just over $525,000 to preserve the 24.91-acre Jacklin farm in Springfield Township and the 71.89- and 33.84-acre Crouse farms in Durham Township, they trumpeted the achievement as proof that the program pays enormous dividends for county residents. In fact, according to Chief Clerk Lynn Bush, more than one-fifth of Bucks County (or more than 80,000 acres) is permanently preserved at the municipal, county or state level.
First Response Collaboration Frames Pope Francis’ Historic Visit to Region
For months leading up to Pope Francis’ late-September appearance in Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, County Emergency Services Director Scott Forster conducted planning meetings with Bucks County police, fire and emergency medical officials. That foresight, which included input from most of the county’s 54 municipalities and their first responders, led to a very smooth event that did not wind up overwhelming Bucks County roadways or mass transit. The planning process also included logistic meetings with SEPTA, the regional transit authority that operated selected stations throughout the weekend appearance, the FBI and the United States Secret Service.
The weekend included activation of the Bucks County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Ivyland, where representatives of multiple agencies (including the National Guard and the American Red Cross) monitored the Pope’s visit through video surveillance, television news accounts and conference calls with state officials. The EOC opening doubled as excellent practice for potential catastrophes in the future. The County’s Emergency Management coordination of this historic Papal visit drew praise from Commissioner Chairman Loughery and COO Hessenthaler during the first October Commissioners’ business meeting.
Reopening of Multiple County Maintained Bridges
During 2015, the County re-opened and cut the ribbon on four bridge rehabilitation projects. The first took place in April, when Bridge No. 240 in East Rockhill Township returned to service. An historically significant 82-foot structure, it spans the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek. In June, the commissioners re-opened Bridge No. 221, which is Traugers Crossing Rd. in Nockamixon Township. It is located adjacent to Rte. 611 in the shadow of a farm that was preserved by a previous Board of Commissioners. During July, the commissioners re-opened Bridge No. 293 in Upper Southampton Township. It carries Gravel Hill Rd. over Mill Creek. The structure was originally constructed in 1860 and is a 34-foot long by 17-foot, one-inch wide two span close spandrel stone masonry arch.
The year ended with the Dec. 23 re-opening of the longest bridge the County General Services division maintains – Bridge No. 36 (Stockton Ave. over Aquetong Creek) in New Hope Borough. County Bridge No. 36 originally was constructed in 1910. In 1974, the bridge was rehabilitated and widened to add a second sidewalk across the structure. The bridge is a 259-feet long by 20-feet three span reinforced concrete open spandrel arch structure.
Combatting Drug Use and Overdose in the Community
The year 2015 included many initiatives aimed at the growing epidemic of drugs – particularly prescription drugs and heroin – throughout Bucks County. During February, the commissioners joined law enforcement officials at the Lower Makefield Township Police headquarters for the rollout of Narcan use for trained emergency personnel. Dr. Kenneth G. Lavelle of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital showed how trained first responders will be able to use Narcan (naloxone) to revive subjects who are in danger of severe health damage or death following an opioid overdose.
Other outreaches included a “Heroin Kills” public safety announcement produced by the Lower Bucks Technical High School, bi-annual medication take back events that have been highly successful, and public education through the County’s Heroin Task Force. The year also featured the placing of suicide hotline signs prominently at all Bucks County train stations and on Bucks County Transport buses and vans.