A large portion of the bi-weekly meeting of the county commissioners on Thursday was conducted on a somber note.

A lengthy report provided a detailed look at both the physical and mental health tolls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read More: The tolls of a global pandemic: COVID-19 impacts county residents both physically and mentally

Additionally, the meeting began with the reading of a prepared statement from Mike Ritter, deputy director of the Domestic Violence Intervention (DVI) of Lebanon County. The statement was prepared after a serious and “prolonged” case of child abuse in North Annville Township was reported in the news the previous day.

Ritter first said the agency wanted to go on record and share its public statement with as many outlets as possible then read the following statement:

“The board of directors, staff and volunteers of DVI stand in solidarity today with our friends and neighbors in Annville and across Lebanon County. The news of the prolonged violence and abuse committed against five young and innocent children cuts deeply. We feel the hurt too. We feel the sense of anger, loss, confusion, guilt and grief along with you. And we understand how an added shroud has been cast in light of the death of Max Schollenberger last year. We hope for healing and recovery for the children, and for justice and accountability for the perpetrators.

“Child abuse is one of the most destructive manifestations of family violence. Unfortunately, sustained cases of child abuse have recently increased in Lebanon County from 56 in 2016 to 76 just two years later. We have great systems in place to assist after abuse occurs. But more importantly, violence against children needs to be prevented. DVI is committed to working closely with local authorities and agencies to build systems for the prevention of child abuse. These efforts alone are not enough to prevent child abuse and neglect; however, we need to have a protective environment in place at all levels to end abuse. To do this requires everyone: individuals, families, communities and leaders coming together to protect children from violence, abuse and neglect.”

Ritter urged people to contact the Victim’s Advocate office at (717) 373-7190 or toll-free at 1-866-686-0451 if they need assistance. He added that advocates are available for not only victims and survivors, but also “for others in the community who are impacted by crimes like these.”

Following the statement, Commissioner Robert Phillips thanked Ritter for “shining a light on a very serious and sad chapter in Lebanon’s history.”

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, who is the county liaison to DVI, said she wanted to clarify that the agency was not involved in this case until contacted by the detectives and then “immediately took action to protect the safety of the children.”

“This was a private adoption agency and it also came from two other counties where the children were adopted,” Litz said. “Our staff had not been involved prior to this incident. […] That doesn’t excuse anything or push blame somewhere else. But I do think it needs to be shared that our staff acted immediately and did the right thing for these children.”

Commissioner Bill Ames did not attend the bi-weekly meeting, which is currently being held online via Zoom, because of personal matters that prevented him from participating in it.

In other (much happier) county business, the commissioners celebrated the career and pending retirement of Lebanon County Prison Warden Robert Karnes, who began his career in 1982 as a prison guard.

In issuing a proclamation on his next-to-last day as a county employee, the commissioners thanked him for his many years of service in what was called “an always tough and thankless profession.” Karnes has been the warden since December 2004.

“He served the county with devotion and commitment in a professional manner. His skills and leadership have been appreciated by the county and he’s been a valued and dedicated employee,” a portion of the proclamation read.

Karnes thanked the commissioners for the opportunity to serve and said, as a religious man, he felt his calling came from a higher power.

“A correctional officer, a supervisor, in no matter what capacity, you have the opportunity to foster change in individuals who made a wrong turn,” Karnes said. “When I was 19, my father said, ‘Bob, if you don’t wake up, you are going to end up in jail and I’m not going to visit you.’ It was one promise I couldn’t keep to him. My father passed 20 years ago, but I ended up in jail anyway — on the right side of the fence because I started making the right decisions. It’s by the grace of God that I didn’t end up as an inmate.”

In other matters, the county moved forward with approving payment to several construction firms heavily involved in the county’s new 911 Call Center construction project.

The commissioners voted to pay Beers + Hoffman Architecture, the lead architectural firm, nearly $1.827 million, or 4.5 percent of the overall projected cost of $38.1 million, for design services. This figure includes payments to Schrader Group, who are subject matter experts and structural engineers, and mechanical engineering firm Bala Consulting Engineers.

The commissioners also agreed to compensate Ned Pelger Engineering & Construction construction management firm $290,000 for pre-construction management services and an additional $740,000 for construction phase services, which covers daily oversight of the construction.

Added together, the two payments to Pelger represent 2.7 percent of the overall project cost. Monies approved at this meeting cover about 7 percent of the overall costs for the design, construction and construction management of the new 911 Center, which will be built in North Cornwall Township.

Read More: County commissioners discuss plans for $36 million 911 center in North Cornwall

The two commissioners in attendance at the meeting also agreed to:

  • Amend the mutual agreement of the South Central Task Force to include Schuylkill County.
  • Accept the county’s 2020 Hazmat Report, which the county must send to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to ensure compliance. It was noted that call volume doubled in 2020 and that 2021 is on a record-setting pace. The county’s hazmat team has been dispatched to 15 incidents already this year while that number was not achieved until the end of February last year.
  • Approve the Radiation Emergency Response Fund grant in the amount of $15,018. This grant, which is in its last year, involves payment from the Three Mile Island fund. The funding is ending now that the nuclear power plant has been decommissioned. The county’s hazmat department plans to spend the monies it receives on technology to improve in-call response services among all hazmat team members and other emergency management agencies.
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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...