CONNECT brings Allegheny County municipalities together to solve issues

March 14, 2024

Joey Brantle works with police departments across Allegheny County to prevent people from being arrested for low-level offenses such as public intoxication, trespass and simple drug possession.

But it’s more than a job for the program director for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion at the Congress of Neighboring Communities.

Brantle is passionate about the issue because she knows firsthand how such citations can be traumatic for those who become entangled in the criminal justice system — as well as their families.

She was a 9-year-old in Allentown in Eastern Pennsylvania when her father was arrested for the chronic truancy of Brantle and her younger siblings.

“We were in a really unstable situation,” says Brantle, now 28. “My Dad was unemployed; my Mom is blind. We were cited for repeated offenses, and he didn’t pay the fine. He went to jail for a few weeks. It meant our family unit had more struggles.”

With LEAD, offenders are referred pre-booking to ongoing care and case management for issues including substance abuse and behavioral health.

Based on a model started in 2011 in Seattle, LEAD is being utilized nationwide to reduce recidivism and save on the costs of incarceration and probation in an overworked criminal justice system.

CONNECT’s impact

Locally, LEAD is one of a host of programs from the Congress of Neighboring Communities, known as CONNECT, that provide shared solutions for the county’s many municipalities to address public safety, infrastructure, transit, health and other challenges.

Among CONNECT’s offerings: programs that assess costs to install electric vehicle chargers and solar systems; coordinated plans for utility digs needed for construction projects; and ways to adapt zoning codes to attract development.

It helped create CONNECT Community Paramedic, now a standalone program that offers free services through collaboration with the Allegheny County EMS Council and Center for Emergency Medicine of Western Pennsylvania

“It’s all nonpartisan. It’s about delivering the best, most equitable services,” says Lydia Morin, CONNECT’s executive director since 2019.

CONNECT launched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2009 and last year spun out as an independent nonprofit. It operates as a supported organization of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies based in Johnstown.

“We always knew we would spin out to do longer-term and bigger projects,” Morin said during an interview at Field Day, the Lawrenceville coworking space where CONNECT maintains offices.

Its budget is just under $1 million and its $1 million endowment is the result of a 2020 grant from the Pittsburgh-based McCune Foundation, says Morin.

How it began

CONNECT was the brainchild of the late David Miller, a professor and director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Affairs.

When the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s, Morin says, tax bases in many southwestern Pennsylvania communities were being wiped out and Miller saw the need for “an organization to bring together the city and its surrounding municipalities” to address public policy challenges.

In Allegheny County, with 130 municipalities — the highest of any county in Pennsylvania — “decisions were being made in isolation with no resources,” she says.

When Miller invited officials from the city of Pittsburgh and individual municipalities to CONNECT’s first organizational session, many were skeptical that local government leaders would show up, Morin says.

All the invitees attended.

CONNECT now has 43 voting members, including the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Officials from nonmember communities frequently join working groups to share ideas, says Morin.

Climate Action Plan

Eric Raabe, CONNECT’s director of infrastructure and resilience, says increasingly warmer, wetter weather has prompted many local governments to assess future expenditures for climate change that could impact bridges, roads, transit and energy prices.

Members of CONNECT “decided these issues are too big for one government to handle alone,” says Raabe.

So CONNECT developed a Climate Action Plan with hundreds of suggestions for communities to tackle energy, waste management and related issues.

CONNECT members also collaborate to secure financing such as federal funds made available for energy saving and other projects through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

“It’s much more powerful when a group of governments gets together,” says Raabe.

Ten CONNECT municipalities are currently trying to obtain funding for solar projects including Etna, Churchill, Ross and Mt. Lebanon. They’re working with G.E.T. (Galvanizing Energy Transition) Solar CONNECT, a partnership with the Pennsylvania Solar Center that assesses the impact of solar installations on public buildings and assists local governments in moving through the process.

“The idea is to see if it saves money or makes sense putting solar on [municipal] roofs,” says Raabe.

LEAD expansion

Fifteen communities in Allegheny County have signed on to LEAD since it launched as a pilot in Etna, Millvale and Shaler in 2022. Other participants are Aspinwall, West View, Braddock Hills, Forest Hills, Swissvale, Wilkins, Churchill, Chalfant, North Braddock, Rankin, East Pittsburgh and most recently, Clairton. The city of Pittsburgh operates its own LEAD program.

CONNECT’s LEAD is funded with approximately $1 million annually from the county’s Department of Human Services.

Police make referrals to an independent agency, Passages to Recovery, based in Swissvale, which handles case management for individuals who volunteer to participate.

After Brantle’s father’s jail sentence, life improved somewhat for her family.

“Caseworkers got us to therapy and got us a cat,” she says. “By high school, my attendance was better but there were still other [family] challenges.”
Brantle found a career path by enlisting in the Army National Guard and earning a bachelor’s degree at Penn State University’s Greater Allegheny campus.

A program like LEAD, she says, could have benefited her family by providing what she describes as “hopefully a warm handoff” from police to social services professionals.

LEAD aims to be “a safety net,” she says. “Case managers walk alongside the participants in a journey to health and rejoining the community.”

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