County commissioners talk budget, opioids, social services and Zika virus

Commissioner Charlie Martin sees no reason to make Bucks County great again.

“The county is already great and continues to be great,” he said to members of the Lower Bucks Chamber of Commerce during a breakfast meeting at Cairn University this morning.

Martin’s comments followed presentations by fellow commissioners Rob Loughery and Diane Ellis-Marseglia on the state of the county.

Loughery focused on the financials.

“We are in a strong position on many levels,” he said.

The county’s budget has contained a surplus for each of the last four years and earned two triple-A bond ratings, the best possible, which allows Bucks to borrow funds at low interest rates. There has also been only one tax increase in the last 10 years.

Loughery noted that the overall quality of life for Bucks residents has improved as well, referencing thriving business communities and abundant natural resources.

The commissioners did not ignore the challenges facing Bucks.

“I don’t think I have to tell anyone here that one of the big problems we have is dealing with drugs,” Loughery said.

In 2015, there were 117 fatal overdoses in Bucks. Over the last year, the county’s overdose rate has increased by 4 percent.

“We believe one fatal overdose is too many so we have a lot of work to do,” said Diane Rosati, executive director of the county’s Drug and Alcohol Commission.

Rosati spoke on issues directly affecting county residents like diversion of prescription medication, subsequent addiction and having access to the “highest-purity, lowest-cost” heroin in nearby Philadelphia.

To fight this epidemic, Rosati said, Bucks has instituted a successful prescription medication disposal program, educated the public with county-funded programs and distributed hundreds of narcan kits, which can save the lives of those overdosing on heroin or other opioids.

Since its implementation, Bucks police officers have saved over 150 people with the medication. That doesn’t count saves by other emergency responders or civilians.

Loughery touched on other issues facing Bucks like overcrowding in prisons and the increased need for social services, particularly with children and the aging populations.

“Caseworkers in the communities, they’re feeling the strain,” he said. “Those strains, those challenges, they’re not going away.”

The commissioners didn’t just lay out the problems — they talked about some upcoming goals. An important one is reducing county government’s footprint, specifically by dealing with the former courthouse in Doylestown. Since the new Justice Center was built, the old courthouse, now an administration building, is about 60 percent vacant.

Other Bucks agencies have been working out of buildings that the county either owns or leases in and around Doylestown. In renovating the former courthouse, Bucks would be able to move more workers, decrease the need for other office buildings and set aside more funds for services. This process will take three to four years, Loughery said.

Bucks officials are also planning to improve infrastructure. The government tacked on a $5 fee to vehicle registration in February, which goes directly into a fund to maintain the county’s 115 bridges. That adds an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million in revenue, while the county spends $2 million to $4 million maintaining bridges each year.

Ellis-Marseglia spoke about a new initiative meant to improve community interaction with police.

“In an effort to make sure that we are keeping communication lines open and that there are no incidents, we want people to know what to do when a police officer stops you,” she said.

Wallet-sized cards have been made and distributed, with the acronym “SLOW.”

“Shut off your engine, Lower your window, Put your hands On the wheel, Wait for further instructions,” the card reads.

Bucks Health Service Director David Damsker finished the meeting by addressing a worldwide concern: the Zika virus.

He said that there is no immediate need to be alarmed in Bucks, unless you recently traveled to an area where being infected is a known possibility. There have been only two cases reported in Bucks County, but they were infected in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

“Vaccine is our silver bullet,” Damsker said, noting that trials have been promising and a Zika vaccine may be only one or two years away. “But there’s no local transmission here. There won’t be, I think, for a long time — if ever.”

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