Proclaiming May as Mental Health Awareness Month in Wyoming County were county commissioners (seated, from left) Tom Henry, Rick Wilbur, and Ernie King; (standing) Mike Hopkins, CEO of Children’s Service Center; Luzerne/Wyoming Counties Mental Health & Developmental Services representatives Cheryl Farkaly, Renee Smith, Jonathan Bates, Tara Fox and Amy Tomkoski; county Judge Russell Shurtleff; and county Human Services director John Alunni.
Story and Photos by Rick Hiduk
(Exclusive to EndlessMtnLifestyles readers)
At their regular public meeting on April 25, the Wyoming County Commissioners approved the distribution of a half million dollars in ARP (American Rescue Plan) funds to first response units and municipalities throughout the county. Sixteen fire and ambulance companies will split $200,000. In municipalities where there is both an ambulance and fire company, both will get $12,500.
Another $300,000 will be divided among municipalities based on population, ranging from $2,717 for North Branch Township with a population of 236 to $45,775 for Tunkhannock Township with a population of 3,976.
Forkston Township resident Kevin Ray noted that his municipality is covered by the Mildred Fire Company from Sullivan County and asked if the commissioners would be giving any money to them. Likewise, Kunkle Fire & Ambulance Company in Luzerne County serves Monroe Township in Wyoming County.
“We cannot give money to other counties,” commissioner chair Rick Wilbur explained.
“Will the township give the fire company the money they get?” Ray asked.
“We would like to think that they would use it that way,” Wilbur responded. “But they can do whatever they want with it. We’re not going to chastise them if they don’t.”
The ARP funds come from the county’s share of $30.5 billion released by the federal government in 2021 to help communities recover from the pandemic and can be applied to a variety of needs, including safety, public transit, and education. Pennsylvania divided and funneled $6.15 billion to the Commonwealth’s 67 counties.
Mental Health Awareness Month Marked
A contingent of representatives from Luzerne/Wyoming Counties Mental Health & Developmental Services were on hand for a signing by the commissioners of a proclamation declaring May as Mental Health Awareness Month in Wyoming County. Commissioner Tom Henry, who chairs the MH&DS advisory board, read the proclamation.
MH&DS administrator Tara Fox used the moment to remind those in attendance about Fork Over Love, a walk-up/drive-through event to be held at the Tunkhannock Primary Center at 5 pm on Wednesday, May 3, for which local eateries provide free meals to the community. This marks the second year that MH&DS has conducted the event, and recipients will find information about the agency in their food packages. “Typically, you don’t know what is available until you need it,” Fox remarked.
On a related topic, Wyoming County Human Services administrator John Alunni discussed new and renewed partnerships between MH&DS, the county, Community Care Behavioral Health, the Northeast Counseling Center, and Children’s Service Center to address the needs of adults experiencing a mental health crisis faster and more effectively, especially in light of the county no longer having a hospital and emergency room.
“We shouldn’t be asking our consumers with mental health crises to drive 45 minutes to a hospital,” he stated.
Lori Faux Bennett, a Burke Counseling Center blended caseworker and Republican candidate for county commissioner, related an event from April 15 during which she was helping a county resident get help for a family member. Even after the person was assessed by a mental health official and deemed potentially harmful to themselves or others, it took hours, she said, for a judge in Luzerne County to issue an involuntary admission warrant. “I know that things are getting better,” she told Alunni, “but these are the kind of gaps in the system that we need to close.”
County judge Russell Shurtleff suggested that the inter-county communication lag didn’t have to happen. “I’m on call 24/7 on the weekends, and the communication center has my number,” he stated, adding that all of the magistrates in the region have the virtual technology to further prevent such an occurrence.
Courtroom Shuffle Approved
After accepting the resignation last month of public defender Jesse Hallinan, the commissioners unanimously approved the hiring of current assistant district attorney Tim Carroll as the new public defender and attorney Bob Shields as the new assistant DA. Carroll, Henry noted, has been a county employee for many years and was the most qualified applicant to fill the vacancy. “He knows all sides of the court system,” said Henry.
On a slightly different matter, Shurtleff told the commissioners that cases are moving through the county at a swift pace. Likewise, warden Ken Repsher reported that prison population was becoming more manageable, and he finally has a full staff of male corrections officers.
During a brief meeting of the Wyoming County Prison Board that preceded the commissioners meeting, he noted that there are still 12 female inmates boarded out to Susquehanna County because he cannot find enough female corrections officers to staff the women’s wing of the prison in Tunkhannock.
Shurtleff cited the administration at the Susquehanna County Correction Facility and county court staff for doing an excellent job of carrying out judicial business between the two counties via virtual communication.
In light of an overall improvement in the jail’s employment situation, commissioner Wilbur proposed eliminating the sign-on bonuses for new corrections officers as of May 1. Henry was reticent to approve the motion, as he feels the bonuses have worked well and would like to have them in place for at least another month. He also said that he felt that it should have been brought up during the prison board meeting rather than after the rest of the board members had left the room.
Wilbur countered that the plan had always been to reassess the bonus situation in April and make a decision based on the current status of the prison. Wilbur and commissioner King voted to approve the measure before a reluctant Henry agreed to it.