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Shapiro visits Blair County

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Altoona City Fire Acting Fire Inspector Justin Smithmyer explains his and Arson K-9 Lucille’s demonstration to Gov. Josh Shapiro at Station 1 on Monday morning.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro came to Altoona Monday to tout the public safety portion of his proposed budget in a press conference that included elected officials who were uniformly Republican — but who seemed uniformly supportive.

The governor’s budget calls for $127 million for fire and ambulance services’ equipment, training and salaries, up by $36 million; a total of $50 million for county emergency communications; and $1.5 million, more than twice what’s currently available, as incentives for intermunicipal cooperation for public safety.

The “optics” of friendly bipartisanship Monday, in keeping with gubernatorial overtures to Republicans in his budget address last month, weren’t an illusion, according to state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, who was in attendance.

“Maybe this is a new day for Pennsylvania,” Gregory said, referring to the frequent accusation that polarization has helped make commonwealth government almost dysfunctional. “In order to get something done, we need his help, and he needs our(s).”

Communities all over Pennsylvania need help with their first responder services, especially for fire protection, according to information presented at the news conference:

Since the 1970s, the number of volunteer firefighters has withered from 300,000 to 38,000, partly due to the proliferation of two-income families, according to Altoona Fire Chief Adam Free.

“There’s been a huge decline in the numbers of people who take on responsibility for public safety,” stated Blair County Commissioner Amy Webster.

It’s “a huge ask” nowadays for volunteer firefighters to do all that’s required to serve, Webster said, alluding to a recent conversation with a Williamsburg volunteer.

Career departments are also struggling, including Altoona’s, for which there has been “a drastic reduction in the number of applicants, oftentimes making finding qualified candidates difficult,” Free said.

Shrinking tax bases and inflation have contributed to the problems, Free said.

A fire engine the city ordered in January for $716,000 is costing $186,000 more than five years ago, Free said.

Shapiro’s proposed help for the 911 centers is welcome, according to Patrick Miller, president of the Altoona Fire Department’s Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association local.

Those centers are a “lifeline” not only for fire departments, but for police and ambulance services, Miller said.

Blair County’s 911 center handles 84,000 calls a year, Webster said.

Statewide, 911 centers are understaffed by 20 percent, Shapiro said.

There are matters about which Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans are not likely to find common ground, said state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, after the news conference.

Abortion is one of those “non-negotiable(s),” she said. But public safety isn’t.

“It’s something we can work together on,” Ward said.

She’s hopeful that there are other areas. “There’s a lot of room to work,” she said. “A lot of things in the middle.”

She cited a bill she’s sponsoring that would set up a scholarship program for students in failing schools.

“He (the governor) wants to get things done,” Ward said. “So do we.”

It doesn’t matter whether lawmakers are Republican or Democratic, “as long as they focus on issues and solutions,” Shapiro said after the news conference.

Asked about the bipartisan vibe on Monday, Republican City Councilman Dave Ellis answered with a story about an incident that occurred while Ellis was working as a supervisor under Shapiro, when Shapiro was the state’s attorney general.

One of Ellis’s agents was shot and taken to a hospital in Pittsburgh after a drug action went “awry,” Ellis said.

Half an hour later, Shapiro phoned Ellis, and within an hour, Shapiro was on a plane from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, where he spent the evening in the hospital, Ellis said.

“He’s truly someone who supports public safety issues at all levels,” Ellis stated.

There are “fundamental” matters over which the parties clash, but elected officials should “forget the letter after (their) names” when dealing with public safety, said City Councilman Jesse Ickes, a Republican.

“For too long, partisanship has ruled the day,” Shapiro said. “This (public safety) is an area where we should find common ground.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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