Commissioners optimistic after DC meetings

Lycoming County Commissioners Tony Mussare and Jack McKernan spent Thursday in Washington D.C. meeting with federal department heads to learn more about federal efforts to tackle issues such as the opioid epidemic and flood-based policies.

Commissioners from across the state met in Washington to hear presentations from heads of the federal departments of Agriculture, Education and State as well as Health and Human Services, the Small Business Administration and more. After each presentation, the commissioners were given time for questions and comments. The commissioners said that a meeting on this scale between commissioners and federal leaders had not yet been done, to their knowledge.

“Something like this really hasn’t been done in recent memory,” McKernan said. “The dialogue for the day was between the county commissioners and the government departmental representatives that were present. I think that was a pretty unique start to the whole thing.”

“It was pretty apparent that (President Donald Trump) wanted us to have direct contact with the department heads,” Mussare added.

Several of the representatives addressed the opioid epidemic plaguing the country, including Rick Dearborn, White House deputy chief of staff for legislative, intergovernmental affairs and implementation, and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. The commissioners relayed that about $45 billion has been allotted to fighting the crisis in the proposed federal budget. Mussare added that additional funding resources could bring that number closer to $50 billion.

The funds would dominantly go toward surveillance, pain management services and safe practice, overdose reversal drugs and improving treatment and recovery services.

“They’re going to keep an open mind,” Mussare said of federal officials on finding solutions to the epidemic. “This is such a major problem that they have to attack immediately.”

The issues of addiction and mental health intertwined as the topic turned to prisons. Mussare said the administration hopes to put funding toward getting mental health patients and addicts the treatment they to keep them out of prison, which also should reduce stress on taxpayers. As more mental health facilities close nationwide, more of their patients end up in prison, Mussare said.

“We’re seeing that now and we don’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “We know they shouldn’t be there.”

McKernan said the federal government is working toward streamlining the process to get permits for infrastructure improvement projects to help those projects “move along at a quick pace.”

The efforts could end up saving costs as well, he added. The commissioners said they’re expecting more federal dollars for roads and bridges from the proposed budget.

Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency discussed issues such as the Chesapeake Bay initiatives, which Mussare said have led to an increase in water and sewer rates, putting more strain on homeowners. Added to that is the new Municipal Separate Storm Sewer program, which requires the implementation of a stormwater management program for minimizing the impacts from runoff, and also costs people more money.

“We really need to get Congress to make statutory changes to that law. It has a lot of people in our county concerned,” McKernan said.

“Our people are overtaxed,” Mussare added.

Mussare said the agency’s representatives acknowledged how many policies such as these are causing people strife.

“I think they’re listening,” he said. “That gives me hope.”

The commissioners came home with direct contact information for the officials they met with on Thursday, as well as with a positive outlook that the current administration is more open to listening to its constituents.

“It was educational and eye-opening in that the people who work in the different parts of the federal government are receptive to hearing from local elected officials,” McKernan said.

“More apparent than anything else, these people didn’t talk like government people,” Mussare added. “They talked like businessmen. It gave me hope. It seems like we’re disconnected, at times, from the federal government.”

McKernan said he estimates about 60 county commissioners attended from across the state, and commissioners from Tioga, Clinton, Sullivan and Bradford counties were there as well.

“Our region of the state was very well represented,” he said, adding that similar meetings will be held with commissioners from other states over the next few months.

Commissioner Rick Mirabito was unable to attend the gathering, but expressed his gratitude to the federal government for setting up the event and providing contact information for the many federal officials involved.