Wolf administration hosts open panel - Titusville Herald: News

Wolf administration hosts open panel

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Posted: Friday, August 31, 2018 5:00 am

The city of Franklin got a visit from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration Thursday, when four top state officials gathered for a discussion panel in which they responded to questions and comments from audience members.

The panelists consisted of Cindy Dunn, Secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR); Teresa D. Miller, Secretary for the Department of Human Services; Teresa Osborne, Secretary for the Department of Aging; and Leslie S. Richards, Secretary for the Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

Topics discussed during the panel ranged from assistance for volunteer fire departments, mental health treatment accessibility, rural internet speeds, to the state of Pennsylvania’s roadway and bridge infrastructure.

The panel is one of a number the Wolf administration has been performing since November in countries across the commonwealth. Different administration officials are featured at each of the panels, meaning each out would cover different topics. This was the 28th such panel and was noted by Julie Slomski, director of the Governor’s Northwest Regional Office and moderator for the panel, as the first one featuring an entirely female lineup of panelists.

After introductions by Slomski and each of the secretaries, the floor was opened for audience members to ask questions. Besides area residents, there were several regional government officials in attendance to speak with the panelists, including Venango County commissioners Albert Abramovic and Vincent Witherup and Pennsylvania state Representative Lee James (R-64).

The first question of the panel was posed towards Miller. The audience member asked about what the state was doing to increase access to psychiatric care for residents.

“Accessing psychiatrists and psychologists…  it’s not just an issue in Pennsylvania, I think this is an issue throughout the country,” Miller said. “And it’s a really difficult one.”

Miller promoted a program known as Telehealth, which was enacted in June, that connects patients with healthcare specialists using web and telephone-based communication. Human Services is contributing to the program, alongside the Department of Health and the Governor’s Office.

However, she acknowledged that one single law or program likely wouldn’t solve the issue.

“I wish I had a silver bullet with this one,” Miller said. “It’s a tricky one, and I think it’s a tricky one everywhere.”

One question came from a Clarion County man, who expressed concern over internet access in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Specifically, the man asked Dunn about poor internet reception in the state’s parks.

“A lot of people’s jobs don’t end everyday at 5 o’clock, even though they’re going camping or to the state park,” the man said. “One issue we have is the terrible internet.”

The man said that the slow internet speeds were preventing some residents from taking advantage of the state’s parks.

Dunn said that slow internet speeds in Pennsylvania were of particular interest to Gov. Wolf.

“A big part of our model for building an economy based on recreation is to have small, entrepreneurial businesses in the Pennsylvania wild,” Dunn said. “And we hear that in droves, not just up here, but across Pennsylvania.”

Dunn said the DCNR had an internal group examining broadband issues in the state forests and parks as part of the governor’s broadband initiative. However, as internet is handled by private businesses, Dunn said that internet companies would need to invest to bring broadband internet statewide.

The topic of state police service to small communities was brought up in another question, as an area borough worker asked Richards about rumors of a law which would require areas without a local police force to pay a $25 to $125 per capita fee for the services of the state police.

Richards clarified that, while such a fee has been proposed by the governor before, it has not been passed in the General Assembly.

She further explained that the reasoning for the fee was due to a drawdown of PennDOT’s budget contributions to the state police. Richards said that when she took office, PennDOT was contributing more than $800 million dollars a year to the state police. That amount is slowly decreasing by $16 million a year to an eventual goal of $500 million, as part of General Assembly plan enacted two years ago.

The lower amount, according to Richards, would better enable PennDOT to plan out construction projects.

“Now that gap is going to be paid by the general fund, so they needed to figure out a way to not take away from the money [other departments] need,” Richards said.

The fact that small townships can call on the state police for free, according to Richards, makes them a major draw, but has put “increased burdens” on the force.

“They have to cover wider areas, and there’s a cost to it,” she said. “It’s not free for them to provide those services.”

While the fee has not passed, Richards expressed support for the idea of the fee, saying the amount paid would come out to a “bargain” for most townships.

The next question came in via email by a Clarion County man who couldn’t attend. He asked Osborne what the state was doing to allow Pennsylvania’s aging population to continue living in their homes, even as they grow dependent on medical assistance.

Osborne pointed to a recent program headed by the Department of Human Services, which the Department of Aging collaborated on, called Community HealthChoices.

Community HealthChoices is a medicaid managed initiative which aims to help seniors stay in their homes by coordinating their local healthcare providers and better inform seniors of their options.

“We want to make sure we’re educating those across the [elderly] lifespan so they’re not in a crisis mode,” Osborne said.

The program has not yet launched in Northwestern Pennsylvania. It is currently active in 14 counties in the southwest, and will expand to five counties in the southeast in 2019 and then grow to cover the rest of the state in 2020.

All four secretaries were addressed with one question, which came from Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel. Boozel, who works as a firefighter and an EMT in his home-county, asked what the state was doing to help firefighters in the county on a variety of issues, including failing equipment and falling volunteer numbers.

Boozle made reference to a recent fire he responded to, in which a K-12 saw, used to cut into vehicles, sprayed gas over the scene due to its ill-maintenance. He also said that his county was at risk of having two EMT services close down due to bankruptcy.

“I can tell you that this is not your issue. I can tell you that it does impact you,” Boozel said. “So I’m asking for help getting that across.”

Further, Boozle brought up the issue of firetrucks and emergency personnel running into traffic jams that block their way on the scenes of emergencies.

On the topic of traffic, Richards spoke of two recent developments known as PennTIME and PennSTART.

PennTIME is an agreement which was signed Tuesday between five commonwealth agencies to reduce highway incident clearance time and allow first-responders to more safely arrive on scenes. The agreement is between PennDOT, the Department of Health, State Police, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the Turnpike Commission (PTC).

Under PennTIME, the agencies will coordinate with each other to clear out traffic from around incidents so that responders have an easier time reaching incident areas.

PennSTART is a work-in-progress testing facility being developed by PennDot, PTC and Penn State University to test out new technologies for transportation-related areas, including for emergency vehicles.

One such technology which will be tested at the facility is an automated system which would inform drivers of accident scenes, locations of emergency responders and other such details that would keep drivers informed and able to get out of the way of emergencies.

Secretary Dunn gave a recommendation for attracting volunteers. DCNR trains firefighters for combating wildfires, and that this kind of training has been known to entice younger men to volunteer.

“Interestingly, young volunteer firefighters love this duty, this tough duty,” she said. “I think volunteer fire companies could use that possibly as a recruitment tool.”

Dunn further said that DCNR has grants for wildfire fighting that can help companies with equipment issues.

While there were a multitude of other comments and questions asked during the panel, the final one went to Rep. James, who asked about the status of Pennsylvania’s “crumbling” roads and bridges.

Richards said that addressing Pennsylvania’s road infrastructure was a major issue, but was happy to report that progress had been made.

“We are no longer the state with the most structurally deficient bridges,” she said with a laugh. “We are the state with the second most.”

Although that number may seem bleak, Richards said that it was actually a good sign, as Pennsylvania has more bridges than the rest of the country, meaning the challenge of fixing them is much greater.

Commissioner Abramovic, at the end of the panel, said he was very happy with the results and glad the county was able to invite the officials to speak. He was also glad for the large turnout. The panel was held in the Barrow Civic Theater, and the entire front section was filled.

There is one more panel scheduled to occur in the northwest region, though it is not as close. One will be held in Elk County in October, though more may be scheduled should the program continue in the coming years.

Ray can be reached, by email, at sray@titusvilleherald.com.

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