Over a hearty lunch of chicken and ice cream sundaes, dozens were introduced to the newly installed Bucks County Commissioners, who shared their plans for addressing everything from addiction and mental health to eradicating homelessness.
Twelve-year veteran Diane Ellis-Marseglia (D) and newcomers Robert J. Harvie (D) and Gene DiGirolamo (R) were the guests of honor at the event on Thursday, March 5, which was hosted by the Lower Bucks County Chamber of Commerce at Celebrations, 2201 Galloway Road, Bensalem. Attendees included local residents, business owners and elected officials, such as Bensalem Township Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo and Reps. Frank Farry and Tina Davis.
The program commenced with introductions by each commissioner. First up was DiGirolamo, who detailed his lifelong residence in Bensalem, where he took over his grandfather’s farm for 25 years before serving in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives for the same length of time.
While in Harrisburg, he was chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, for which he fought to find solutions to the opioid epidemic – a nationwide issue DiGirolamo holds close to his heart after his son, now in long-term recovery, battled a heroin addiction.
“When I looked at the budget of the county, three-quarters deals with health and human services, and that’s what really attracted me to this job,” he said.
In his new role as commissioner, which he began Jan. 6, DiGirolamo plans to continue the fight against opioids through several initiatives. These include training all Bucks County police departments in helping addicts receive treatment when they come through the doors, and aiding individuals in paying for that treatment, whether it’s seeing if they qualify for Medicaid or having the county step in with federal/state funds.
“When an addict wants to get help, you’ve got to act right away. You can’t tell them to come back next week,” he said. “They’ll never show up again.”
Additionally, the board is preparing a resolution that prohibits safe injection sites from opening in Bucks County.
Harvie, who is vice chair of the board, was born in Bristol Borough and raised in a family that emphasized community service, including local government and PTO, the latter of which his mother launched in the Bristol Borough School District in the 1970s.
His upbringing prompted Harvie to become an educator, and he was a teacher and chairman of the Social Studies Department at Bucks County Technical High School for 20 years. After moving to Falls Township in 1999, he served on the township’s planning commision for two years. In 2003, he was elected to the board of supervisors and held the title of chairman from 2008 to 2020, which is longer than anyone in the history of the township.
For Harvie, a key goal is to stress the importance of the census. According to studies from 2010, he said Pennsylvania is next to last in terms of accuracy – only Texas had a higher number of unaccounted citizens. Not only did this impact district map boundaries, it lost the state tens of millions of dollars for education, infrastructure and other population-related areas.
“All that money based on those figures lost,” he said. “And lost every year for 10 years.”
Last but not least, Ellis-Marseglia stepped up to the podium. A Lower Makefield native and current Middletown Township resident, she was first elected to the board in November 2007. During her tenure, Ellis-Marseglia championed programs such as Code Blue and Crisis Intervention Training; worked to create the Hoarding Task Force and Suicide Prevention Task Force; and improved response to mental health and substance abuse issues in the Bucks County Jail. She is a clinical social worker, and has worked with children and families in Bucks County for more than two decades.
Her initiatives include a lead paint removal program for families within 85 percent of the median income as well as a number of improvements at the jail. A new facility for females is in the process of being built, which frees up space in the original building for education and 12-step programs.
Currently, Ellis-Marseglia is working to promote several other projects, such as a suicide hotline, which families can call if they believe a loved one in jail may harm themselves; and the training of police officers in recognizing mental illness. To date, 483 Bucks County officers have learned how to determine when an individual should go to a hospital rather than jail.
For Ellis-Marseglia, eradicating homelessness is another mission. While homeless rates have gone down, she said it’s still a major issue. Her plan is to have organizations such as Bucks County Opportunity Council aid with rent costs, which would prevent many from getting evicted.
The luncheon concluded with a question-and-answer session, during which the commissioners discussed the new voting machines (demonstrations are scheduled throughout the county) and the legalization of recreational marijunana.
“I am dead set against doing that. I do not think that is a good idea for Bucks County or the state of Pennsylvania. As far as I’m concerned, marijunana is a dangerous drug. It’s addictive and I think it sends a terrible message to our children if we legalize recreational marijuana here in Pennsylvania,” DiGirolamo said, adding that he believes getting caught with a small amount of the drug should be a small offense rather than a felony.
Each commissioner shared final statements. Ellis-Marseglia hopes to have all social service agencies interacting and working with each other; Harvie wants to build a stronger connection between the county government and residents; and DiGirolamo aims to help as many locals suffering from addiction and poverty as possible.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com