Federal funds will allow city to add crisis intervention staffer

Mar. 16—The city of Meadville will create a crisis intervention and support staff position thanks to $268,000 in federal funding procured by Sen. Bob Casey, city officials announced this week.

The position will assist city police, fire and emergency medical departments by connecting community members who interact with the departments to relevant social services. An important goal of the addition is to short circuit cycles of interaction that can drain departmental resources and negatively impact the community members involved.

Seated behind the desk in his City Building office Friday, Chief Michael Stefanucci pointed to instances when police officers respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis as an example of the type of area that will benefit from the addition of the crisis intervention position.

"We respond, and we do what we can, and then we leave — and then we respond the next day because we get called back," Stefanucci said, "and it'll hit a pattern till eventually it does sometimes rise to criminal behavior, which is not what the person needs because the judicial system is not set up to take care of people's mental health problems, it's for criminal actions. Unfortunately, when they don't get that help they need, it ends up being a criminal case."

The new position will similarly help avoid what City Manager Maryann Menanno called a "one-and-done approach" to residents in crisis. While officers typically provide assistance and direct people to community resources, following up on such encounters can be challenging.

"They don't always have that time to go back the next day and say, 'Hey, how's everything going? Have you pursued any of these things?'" Menanno said. "And that's what this person can do. They can take it from the initial interaction and move it forward to actually get these people the help they need."

Funding for the position comes in the form of a Congressionally Directed Spending Award — more commonly known as an "earmark" — and will cover salary and benefits for three years as well as a vehicle, equipment and other related expenses, Stefanucci said.

The position was one of 142 community projects across the state for which Casey procured $172.5 million in total funding. Other awards included $1 million for a project to convert a former roller rink in North Philadelphia into a full-service health and wellness center; $1 million to expand the city of Erie's Love Your Neighbor program, which provides resident groups with grants for neighborhood revitalization efforts; and $4.65 million for a vehicle maintenance shop for the Army National Guard facility in New Castle.

Meadville was the only Crawford County municipality to receive funding. Four projects in Erie County were funded. The funding was part of a $440 billion spending package signed by President Joe Biden a week ago. Funding for additional projects could be possible, according to Casey's office, depending on what happens with the remaining appropriation bills currently facing Congress.

"I fought for this award to help the hardworking men and women of the Meadville Police Department serve their community and help Meadville residents access the resources they need in a crisis," Casey said. "This is a prime example of taxpayer dollars going exactly where they should: straight back to our communities in Pennsylvania."

Community project funding in the form of Congressionally Directed Spending Awards is a reformed version of the earmark spending banned by Congress in 2011. Before the ban, members of Congress could use earmarks to direct funding to specific projects with little disclosure — even, in some cases, projects that they or family members benefited from.

Brought back in 2022, earmarks today cannot benefit for-profit entities and require increased transparency regarding the projects that benefit as well as the members of Congress procuring the funds. Elected officials and family members can't benefit, and requests must be posted online with descriptions of the projects.

Because of the uncertain nature of the funding, Menanno said work remains concerning the new position. The next step is to create a formal job description. The timeline for hiring someone depends largely on the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the award spending.

Menanno and Stefanucci were optimistic that when the position is eventually added, it will make a difference in the capacity of the numerous social service agencies concentrated in the city due to its role as the county seat.

"They all do wonderful things, but they're strapped for employees, and they service the entire county," Menanno said. "If we can help in any way to just ease some of that capacity issue, that's what we're going for."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.