Participants in the June 20 meeting of the Wyoming County Prison Board included (above, from left) commissioners Tom Henry, Rick Wilbur, and Ernie King; chief clerk Bill Gaylord; district attorney Joe Peters; sheriff Bob Roberts; and Lt. Heather Schmidt.
Photos and story by Rick Hiduk
(exclusive to EndlessMtnLifestyles.com readers)
The agendas for the monthly meeting of the Wyoming County Prison Board and the biweekly public meeting of the county commissioners were relatively short, but some important news came from both. Ongoing outsourcing of county inmates to other facilities is draining the prison budget, and Seneca Trail Park in Eaton Township will soon be back under control of the county.
With warden Ken Repsher on vacation, Lt. Heather Schmidt delivered the warden’s report for the first time, noting that 14 males and 10 females are still boarded out to other counties. The number of new commitments continues to outpace releases in the county system, and the prison is still short on staff.
“We are getting applications and scheduling interviews, but some of them aren’t even showing up for the interviews,” Schmidt told the commissioners.
“It’s a bad situation,” commissioner Rick Wilbur remarked. At 75 dollars per inmate per day, the county is paying upwards to $54,000 per month. “We do not have nearly enough in the budget to cover this,” Wilbur said when asked by the press. “We do have Act 13 money that we can use that is set aside for things like this.” The county had spent $39,448 in boarding fees already in the first four months of the year, plus at least $1,838 in medical expenses, and the commissioners know that both May and June were costlier.
Schmidt gave credit to the remaining corrections officers for stepping up to fill shifts.
“Which is overtime and making it worse,” Wilbur lamented.
Act 13 funds are also known as impact fees paid by the natural gas companies and redistributed to municipalities. One of the many ways in which the money can be used is for public safety, which includes prisons. The commissioners acknowledged that they would prefer putting the funds towards other uses.
District attorney Joe Peters expressed concerns that the routine overtime that the corrections officers have absorbed will also lead to fatigue, and he worries that the stress could lead to a further loss of staff. Schmidt told the board that she and Repsher are not turning down any qualified applicants. Applications can be found online at www.wycopa.org under Job Openings.
Eaton Township to Cede Seneca Trail Park
At their most recent public meeting, the Eaton Township supervisors unanimously agreed to turn Seneca Trail Park back over to the county after adopting it on a conditional basis about two years ago. The commissioners were adamant at that time that they did not want to be “in the park business,” but they were unified in Tuesday’s meeting that the former Roadside Rest along Route 29 has a brighter future under the county.
The commissioners had expected to approve the transfer at the meeting but said that the township’s lawyer wanted to make some changes to the termination agreement. Linda Coolbaugh, one of many volunteers who have coordinated the cleanup and reopening of the public green, was in attendance at the commissioners meeting, expecting the deal to be sealed.
The commissioners plan to form a Recreation Board composed of volunteers to continue to maintain and improve the park.
“We still don’t want to be in the park business, but we don’t want to see it close,” commissioner Tom Henry stated.
“Especially after so much progress has been made,” Wilbur added.
Coolbaugh indicated that a solid group of people stand at the ready to be part of the new, official committee. “It’s been a great year so far,” she related. “We’ve had a lot of positive activity.” School students from Dallas Area High School were recently accompanied by conservation officers there to release trout fingerlings into Bowmans Creek, which runs alongside the park. Other schools, including Lake Lehman and Tunkhannock, that have Trout in the Classroom programs have expressed an interest in doing the same.
“It can only get better,” said Wilbur, “And we want to keep it going.”
Due to the holdup by the township, the commissioners had to table the plans to a future meeting.
Emergency Planning Committee Needs More Participants
Commissioner Henry attended a meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Commission (LEPC) on June 17 and was disappointed by very low attendance for what was once a robust committee. “Covid took a toll on it,” Henry said of the LEPC. “We’re having trouble getting it back together, and we’re open to suggestions.”
In the past, representatives from the larger companies in the county, including gas companies, as well as hotel managers have met to identify potential disaster scenarios like a toxic truck spill and discuss how the situation would be managed. “It’s basically a safety seminar,” Wilbur related.
“We have a new EMA director, and it would be nice for the public to show him support,” said Henry.
Additional Items Discussed
The commissioners voted to have Wyoming County human services director John Alunni send a letter to Sen. Lisa Baker and Rep. Karen Boback urging them to increase funding for mental health services in the county in the 2022-23 state budget. Wilbur noted in the agenda that maintaining adequate mental health services is a top priority of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and the county commissioners in light of previous budget cuts.
The commissioners accepted the resignation of Elizabeth Foster, who is retiring after many years as county court reporter. They acknowledged Foster’s esteemed career prior to also voting to hire former county employee Carla Diorio as a part time court reporter until a permanent replacement can be found.
The commissioners are seeking an update on the Tioga Terrace situation with the understanding that 19 families there have applied for rental assistance through the state’s Department of Human Services. Wilbur said that the second wave of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program is more flexible than the initial program and is open to any county resident who has directly or indirectly experienced hardship because of the pandemic. More information can be found at https://www.dhs.pa.gov/ERAP/Pages/ERAP.aspx.
The commissioners had an encouraging meeting with Connex, an IT solutions provider, on strengthening broadband connections within the county. Wilbur noted that they have met with other companies, but Connex was the first to have a viable “final mile” plan.
Subsequently, Wilbur said that the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority established in December 2021 is being reworked into an 11-member board to more efficiently allocate $50-billion in broadband funding available to Pennsylvania.
By then, the county might have a plan with Connex to target a small area of the county as a “proof of concept” to secure additional funding for more extensive work.
Commissioner Henry thanked Meshoppen Cat Rescue again for assisting them in rescuing 39 cats from a Lake Winola home earlier this month and stressed a need by the agency for old towels, blankets and bedding at the shelter in Black Walnut. The commissioners approved a one-time donation of $1,000 to the Rescue at their previous meeting and said this morning that they wish they could give more.
The commissioners reported that they have hired an assistant for information technician Brian Dudick, whose work load has increased due to a growing need for cyber security. Jeremy Bush will be tending to more of the day-to-day tech issues in county offices.