The Lebanon County District Attorney’s office will apply for its share of a $50 million state grant designed to stem the tide of gun violence across the commonwealth. 

Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf asked and received permission from the Lebanon County Commissioners at their meeting on Thursday, Sept. 15, to apply for up to $250,000 for a Gun Violence Investigation and Prosecution (GVIP) Grant that was recently announced by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.

“The goal of GVIP is to allow district attorney offices and police investigative unit(s) to have the tools and the resources that they need to properly investigate for gun violence crimes, to help prevent gun violence crimes and to also lower any issues with clearance rates of the existing crimes,” Hess Graf told the commissioners.

When discussion was held with members of Lebanon County’s law enforcement community, a collective decision was made to focus on a specific area of need.

“What we really focused on was the increase in fatalities or homicides due to gunshots,” added Hess Graf. “And what we’re hoping is that the items we’d like to apply for increase the investigative resources for the county detective division. Our office really does respond to just about every homicide call-out that occurs in the county.”

Hess Graf said her office plans to apply for funding to purchase technology and software that will aid in the work of the county’s detective division, which functions under the purview of the district attorney’s office.  

“What we’re hoping to bring in with the tools and the equipment allows for a better investigation, a more thorough investigation,” she said. “It also allows us to assist the other municipal police departments – even state police – in additional ways.”

The grant distribution is based on a formula that considers the percentage of violent crime and the rate of increase in violent crime throughout the county.  

“It is a competitive grant, so we have to be able to show what the increase in homicide-related death due to gunshots and things of that nature, (and) why we’re deserving of a portion of these funds,” added Hess Graf. “What we’re seeking in total is approximately $250,000, at the most.”

The equipment her office wants to purchase is estimated to be around $100,000 and the software is approximately another $100,000. Final vendor bids for the hardware and software are not expected until mid-October.

“So I’d say at the most we’d be at $250,000, (but) I’m hoping to come far under that,” noted Hess Graf. “I’m just trying to be as – I’d say worst-case scenario – but I’m trying to estimate on the higher end.”

When asked by LebTown in a follow-up email after the meeting how her office would use the other $50,000 the county would receive as part of the grant, she said she only plans to apply for the final estimated amount needed for the equipment and the software.

“As stated our figures are pending final estimates on the equipment,” she wrote. “We are only submitting for the money we intend to spend on equipment, i.e. there will be no overage or overpayment.” 

When asked by LebTown at the meeting about the increase in gun-related homicides in Lebanon County, she said her office researched figures back to 2017 but that she didn’t have those figures readily available in the large packet of grant materials she had in front of her. As part of her email response, she supplied the following information:

“I requested statistics based on law enforcement reports and also the coroner,” wrote Hess Graf. “We are pending final replies, the numbers thus far show 4 GS related deaths in 2018, 3 GS related deaths in 2019, 1 GS related death in 2020, 6 GS related deaths in 2021.”

A followup email request for 2022 data regarding year-to-date gun-related homicides had not received a response as of publication time.

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz asked the DA why her report included financial figures for each Lebanon County municipality. Hess Graf said funding is also available for each police department that might want to apply for assistance through their individual departments.

In other county business, the commissioners approved a number of items for Children and Youth Services. Those items include: fiscal year 2021-22 4th quarter invoices, the final report for that fiscal year, implementation of the FY 2022-23 budget, the department’s needs-based budget for FY 2023-24, and FY 2022-23 placement contracts. 

Agency costs rose across many service areas due to a variety of reasons, including staff shortages, salary and insurance increases, and a dearth of available bed space at placement centers around the commonwealth – the latter an ongoing issue that agency administrator Erin Moyer has highlighted in the past. (The one area that was underspent in FY 2021-22 was Juvenile Probation.)

The county’s portion of the agency’s over expenditure of $837,567 is $88,542, Moyer told the commissioners. 

“Children and Youth spent a total of $8,841,072 and was overspent in the amount of $2,00,542 due to the implementation of the salary study increases, as well as large provider rates increases that were not budgeted for,” said Moyer.

Moyer noted it’s common for her agency to call 40 different placement centers in an attempt to find available space, adding that one provider’s rate per child is $750 per day.

The agency’s needs based budget request is for $12.57 million with the county’s share being $2.68 million, an increase from FY 2022-23 implementation budget. Moyer said there’s an additional reason for that increase in addition to higher insurance rates and the recent increase in employee salaries designed to attract new workers and retain current staff members.

“Changes to staffing includes the request for three new caseworkers, as well as additional office space and renovations needed to accommodate our growing staff complement,” added Moyer.

The commissioners also voted unanimously to:

  • Serve as a pass through for grants via the Redevelopment Authority for two separate construction projects at Lebanon Valley College.
  • Approve revisions to the Lebanon County Stormwater Management Ordinance so the county is in compliance with new Department of Environmental Protection regulations.
  • Accept the minutes of its Sept. 1  meeting, the treasurer’s report and various personnel transactions.
  • Receive at a later date, inspect, and potentially approve the county’s 2022 election ballot, which was being printed at the time of Thursday’s commissioner meeting. The delay in having the ballot ready for approval at the meeting was due to final receipt of state certification, which occurred at the close of business on Wednesday.
  • Accept a change order in the amount of $8,110 in the plumbing contract for construction work at the county’s new 911 center. The change order is for hydrants and roof drains for the hazmat building.
  • Grant two real estate tax exemptions for fully disabled veterans.  
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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...