New county plan points to fragmentation: Strain on volunteer emergency services ‘overwhelming’
As more unfunded mandates and regulations trickle down from federal to state to county governments and then come to rest on municipal officials’ shoulders, smaller and more rural municipalities are facing a sense of disenfranchisement and fragmentation, said Kim Wheeler, deputy director of planning with the Lycoming County Department of Planning and Community Development.
Fragmentation of local government and the sense of being disenfranchised were the subjects of discussion Thursday as Wheeler laid out chapter three of the county’s comprehensive plan update as part of an eight-week series.
Municipalities are being required to provide services they may not have the human resources or funds to provide.
“It’s difficult to get the efficient and effective operations of local government anymore because we have decreasing populations, a lot of times in the rural areas,” Wheeler said.
More regulations and fewer people put a higher strain on fire and emergency services in particular, she said.
“All municipalities, by law, are required to operate or have fire and emergency medical services provided within their territory,” Wheeler said. “And, in a recent law change, they now have to cover it 24/7.”
Because of requirements and regulations, Wheeler said municipalities struggle to run things effectively without many volunteers. More and more, nationwide, career service fire and emergency services are growing, which means paying for these positions, she said.
“It’s not just the human resources and having the numbers to volunteer,” said Kurt Hausammann, planning director. “It’s the training that they need and the financial resources it takes to do all of that. And this has been going on for some time. It’s not getting better.”
Add in the financial burden of equipment, less capacity to fill the roles of elected officials and boards, and other run-of-the-mill municipal needs and it’s not hard for municipalities to end up “overwhelming their resources,” Wheeler said.
These struggles are compacted by the feeling of powerlessness and being closed off from other forms of government, she added.
“It’s not a problem you can just throw money at,” Hausammann said.
To help combat these issues, the planning department has included a few project ideas in its drafted comprehensive plan.
One is to develop a countywide Emergency Medical Services Response Plan, which includes the county Department of Public Safety. The department is working with the EMS Response and Staffing Task Force to address the requirements and challenges of providing sufficient services to local municipalities by evaluating their abilities to provide a readily accessible and efficient level of services to their residents.
Fire and EMS agencies will need to work with their respective municipalities to identify specific shortcomings and needs, which will require the agencies to examine their individual and collective resources, capacity, funding and other aspects of their services.
Wheeler said Susquehanna Regional EMS already is facilitating conversations and planning to develop a membership-based approach to regional EMS service provision.
“We’re not here to tell (municipalities or fire and EMS agencies) what to do,” Hausammann clarified, saying the planning department will facilitate meetings and help with what it can. “We just want to help them along the way.”
A series of projects also is proposed for helping assuage the feelings of disenfranchisement expressed by smaller municipalities, Wheeler said.
The planning department suggests strengthening Council of Governments, called COGs, around the county. These councils are meant to be regional coordinating bodies that assist multiple municipalities with services such as planning, technical assistance, purchasing power and getting the attention of legislators, she said.
“It seems to be this trend that local governments have been assuming an increasing number of responsibilities in the last 10 to 15 years and are kind of left out there to do it on their own,” Wheeler said. “Whether it’s unfunded mandates or various other things, they are just not supported. COGs can help them with that in a lot of ways.”
The county also would like to create an annual municipal summit to give all of the county’s municipalities a common ground on which to discuss and get updates on issues of importance.
The summit could become an opportunity for county officials to gain perspective and insight, not only for county reference, but also to pass on to state and federal legislators, Wheeler said.
“We need good communication,” she said. “Let’s make that more of a habit, so we can speak on behalf of the whole county.”
Weekly presentations come before hearing
County Comprehensive Plan presentations are scheduled to take place over the next five weeks during meetings of the county commissioners at 10 a.m. Thursdays in Executive Plaza, 330 Pine St.
Each presentation will focus on a separate priority issue with time for questions and comments after. Topics already presented include infrastructure, the economy and fragmentation of local governments.
The remaining schedule, which is subject to change, follows:
• Thursday — Flooding
• March 15 — Land use regulations
• March 22 — Volunteerism and civic engagement
• March 29 — Threats to water quality
• April 5 — Effects of drugs and how to combat them
All eight chapters of the county comprehensive plan draft are available at www.lyco.org/departments/planning-and-community-development. The website allows for public comment and provides an online survey.
“We want to get input during these eight weeks,” said Kurt Hausammann, planning director.
A public hearing dedicated to the plan in its entirety will be held in April, followed by a 45-day comment period. Pending comments, the plan is slated to be finalized and approved this summer.