The Berks County commissioners Friday looked back at a difficult year and forward to one they hope is much better.
Commissioners Christian Leinbach, Kevin Barnhardt and Michael Rivera filled in business leaders on the issues that have and will dominate local government at a virtual breakfast forum hosted by the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance.
Each spoke about the challenges and expressed an eagerness to work with their colleagues for the betterment of Berks.
Leinbach highlighted his excitement about fostering greater economic growth now that the county has hired its first director of economic development to focus on creating a unified strategy and his desire to tackle various transportation projects throughout the county.
But the issue he spoke most enthusiastically about was the possible restoration of passenger rail service between Reading and Philadelphia.
A group of community leaders committed to restoring the service unveiled the results of a preliminary study last summer that provides a blueprint on how the project could move forward.
“It was the first plan in 25 years that made fiscal and economic sense,” Leinbach said. “It is a solid plan, and the key next step is the formation of an authority with Montgomery and Chester counties that needs to determine whether or not such an operation is truly possible.”
He added that the project would also take approval from Norfolk Southern, which will be a big hurdle that the authority would have to clear before the process could move on. And then the focus would have to shift to finding an operator and raising capital.
“I’m optimistic, but I’m not going to sit here and put some arbitrary timeline in place,” he said. “We need to follow the steps.”
Barnhardt spoke about his efforts to evaluate the county election process after the coronavirus pandemic brought new challenges to the 2020 presidential election and touted a new deal with the Big Show Sports Complex of Delaware County to manage and maintain the Berks County Youth Recreation Facility in Bern Township for the next 15 years.
He also lauded the work of the savings and efficiency team. He said the county had created the team before the pandemic arrived but intensified their work in response to the difficulties COVID presented for workplaces.
“The pandemic really sped up our mission to become more efficient about how we handled government services,” he said. “We had to do many of these things by force, but there are some things we are looking to make permanent.”
He said the team has already identified 45 priority items that will result in long-term savings.
Rivera highlighted his efforts during the pandemic to ensure the county was working with its community partners to find solutions to problems that arose in the wake of the global health crisis.
He spoke about the rental assistance program the county established with federal funds to keep those who were struggling financially in their homes and an initiative to find housing for homeless individuals who had tested positive for COVID.
Rivera also shined a spotlight on the collaboration between the county and the chamber alliance to create the Rebuild Berks campaign. The campaign aimed to provide business owners with the resources they needed to adapt to COVID mitigation requirements and encourage residents to support local businesses during these tough times.