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Will increased consolidation lead to more regionalization?

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A number of local government bodies across Lycoming County this year have expressed interest in erecting public safety buildings and consolidating services. Today the Sun-Gazette concludes the multiple-day series to explore this trend.)

plans are on the table to bring four new public safety buildings to different parts of Lycoming County.

One issue public officials will inevitably have to measure is if the benefits outweigh the costs.

In 2019, City Council estimated a six-year projection to build a public safety building would cost $15 million.

Meanwhile, Jersey Shore looks to spend, at minimum, $2.5 million on its building, which will be offset by a $1 million RCAP grant. That, however, is the cost of a project that would exclusively move the Tiadaghton Valley Regional Police Department to a new headquarters — excluding the municipal facilities and Citizen’s Hose Co.

Finally, South Williamsport’s project comes in at around $5.2 million, which the borough will try to pay for with state and federal grants, according to Borough Manager Steve Capelli.

Even though officials say these buildings will save taxpayer dollars in the long run, they maintain the value of their respective public safety building projects cannot be written on a price tag.

Tiadaghton Valley Regional Police Chief Nathan Deremer, City Police Chief Damon Hagan, City Fire Chief Mark Killian, South Williamsport Interim Police Chief Norm Hager all see inherent benefits to newer and updated buildings that will increase their ability to provide quality service to the residents they help every day.

Hagan and Killian both believe a joint building will increase productivity, communication and teamwork between two organizations that have traditionally worked together but separately when responding to emergency scenes.

However, another topic of conversation circles around aging infrastructure. City police moved into city hall back in the 70s, and Tiadaghton Valley Regional Police’s headquarters are both crammed and slowly moving past the point of repair and renovation.

“A lot of the buildings in the county are severely outdated and need to be brought up to current standards,” Commissioner Scott Metzger said.

South Williamsport Borough Manager Steve Capelli agreed. According to acting police chief Norm Hager, the borough’s police department does not meet the modern expectations of a police headquarters, which presents safety and security concerns for officers and police equipment in the building.

Commissioner Tony Mussare, among others, said updating these buildings would cost even more money, pushing officials toward constructing entirely new buildings.

“If you look at the municipalities that are doing these projects, they have older infrastructure and are older buildings,” Mussare said. “Government is a lot more complicated now than it was in the ’50s when they chose to build or purchase these buildings.”

Mussare cited new efficiencies in heating and cooling, which also make constructing new buildings a viable option to save taxpayers money in the long run.

And both Deremer and Hager pointed out that new advances in technology almost require police forces to have buildings specifically designed for the digital age.

Commissioner Richard Mirabito said superfluous buildings lead to greater tax burdens, and that there are more than 2,500 municipal governments in Pennsylvania. If they all have separate buildings for their offices, maintenance sheds and police departments, their infrastructure places a heavy burden on taxpayers, according to Mirabito.

“We need to find a way to reduce the infrastructure burden caused by all these municipal entities,” Mirabito said. “We’re trying to do our part within the county.”

And townships like Lower Allen in Cumberland County that have walked this path show how this has been successfully completed before, and provide a template for what local officials can aspire to create.

“The direction is bringing services together. If we can provide better services, bring together resources and save taxpayer dollars, then we shouldn’t hesitate to do it,” state Rep. Joe Hamm said.

Jerry Ozog, the executive director of the state fire and emergency services institute, said that is where he sees many local first responder services going.

“The way Pennsylvania is, it’s highly decentralized. The borough, township or city decides what they want to do,” Ozog said. “However, in the future there may be some regionalization efforts. I’m a big fan of regionalization. It’s easy to say, harder to achieve.”

Officials like Deremer, Hagan and Killian all said they want to take their time in the planning stage to ensure their respective projects are done right the first time, something that also was important to Dave Holl, public safety director in Lower Allen Township.

“A problem is governments build for now, not for the future. You have to look at the strategic long-range problems and initiatives,” Holl said. “Is (the department) going to grow, and if so, how do you plan for that growth? Do you build a complex that’s multiple floors and lease some of that space until you grow into it?”

While officials within individual departments push for these conjoined buildings as a solution to outmoded facilities, the county commissioners are split on their own project as they muddle through trying to find a larger facility to house the county coroner’s office — an effort coroner Chuck Kiessling has been urging them forward on for years.

Metzger is pushing for a shared building among multiple entities which will allow the county to leverage more grant dollars into action. Meanwhile, Mussare said combining multiple entities into the same building will increase immediate costs and make it more difficult to find a suitable building that meets the needs of everyone, further delaying the effort.

Meanwhile, the commissioners have pledged to be supportive of these projects while remaining uninvolved in the planning.

City Council and the commissioners decided to part ways from early conversations about the county and city sharing space. Former Mayor Gabriel Campana expressed reluctance in 2016 to the thought of the city coming second to the county in terms of the building’ use.

“I respect what their decisions are, but we have to move ahead and help our coroner,” Metzger said.

Has the can been kicked far enough down the road to purchase or build a facility exclusively for the coroner, or should the county continue searching for a way to keep the cost of that project low?

Elected officials will ponder these questions and more as they continue to plan for and refine these public safety building projects. Meanwhile, department heads eagerly look forward to the future for a solution that will modernize public services in Lycoming County.

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