Seven priorities: Counties work to improve communities, quality of life
There are countless ways that Pennsylvania residents interact with their county governments every day, probably without even realizing it – everything from services for those with mental illness, intellectual disabilities and substance abuse issues, to child abuse investigations, to local court operations, to marriage certificates, mortgage, deeds and other document recording, to property assessment, to 911 call-taking and dispatch, to local bridges and mass transit and much more.
Together, the leaders of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have chosen seven priorities for 2018 that reflect this wide range of services.
But more than that, our 2018 priorities are our promise to the residents of this state to work together with the commonwealth on solutions that better meet the needs of Pennsylvanians, reduce costs, assure quality services and make sure every taxpayer dollar is being used effectively.
The counties’ top priority for 2018 focuses on the crucial human services and supports we provide that protect the most vulnerable.
Our capacity to meet needs, though, has been strained by a steady decrease in state funding for more than a decade while mandates and caseloads continue to increase.
A primary example of caseload growth in recent years is the nearly 30 new child welfare laws enacted in 2015. Washington County has experienced a 35 percent increase in referrals since the laws were implemented; Lebanon County, a 40 percent increase; and some counties, more than 100 percent increases.
But these new laws came without any additional state support, leaving our county children and youth agencies struggling to perform this important responsibility.
Counties need the state and federal government to commit full funding that recognizes our mutual commitment to serve our citizens across all human services programs, and to review and identify potential reforms in the scope and administration of human services programs to better reflect our state-county partnership.
Also driving service needs is the toll of the opioid epidemic.
For instance, a record 38 people died from overdoses in Lycoming County in 2017, while the Lawrence County coroner has had twice the number of autopsies than usual because of the crisis. This trend has become a major cost driver across county budgets for drug and alcohol services and other human services areas.
We have seen progress in recent years, for example by expanding access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and by continuing to implement “warm handoff” protocols to help get overdose survivors directly into treatment.
However, more can and must be done.
For that reason, counties support the governor’s recent action to declare the heroin and opioid crisis as a statewide disaster emergency.
Counties have a critical role in addressing the epidemic, and increased collaboration between state and local officials to develop and implement a comprehensive approach, coupled with additional resources to expand local capacity, is important to the success of these efforts.
Counties also support, as a priority, increasing access to forensic beds in state hospitals for county inmates with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
While the state and counties are already taking important steps to address this issue, it is a crisis that fails to effectively or compassionately address human need.
Relatedly, we need a greater focus on expanding resources and treatment options for individuals with mental illness or a developmental disability, both within and outside of the prison system.
Sadly, county jails have become our nation’s largest mental health facilities, and 19 counties have already adopted a resolution to actively support the national Stepping Up movement to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails.
Clinton County recently noted, as it approved new prison employees to focus specifically on mental health care, that it is more cost-effective to provide mental health services than to house an inmate; if they don’t make those investments up front, 60 percent of inmates will likely return within three years.
Two other areas where additional support is needed are in veterans’ services and in voting systems. To the first, counties provide important services to our veterans to assist them in their return to civilian life.
But we can do better to keep our promise to support veterans and their families after the trauma of active service, and as a priority counties support federal and state resources to assure programs and services are adequate, timely and appropriate for veterans.
Counties also take pride in their responsibility to maintain the integrity of the election system, from voter registration until the last vote is counted.
But most voting equipment is at the end of its useful life and will need to be replaced in the next few years.
These replacement costs can quickly add up, with nearly 40,000 voting machines operated by our counties and the latest computerized machines costing between $2,500 and $3,000 each – not including programming, supplies and maintenance.
We will need state and federal assistance to continue to uphold our responsibility for a fair and accessible voting system.
Among all of these issues, counties continue to monitor ongoing state discussions regarding the potential of placing a severance tax on the natural gas industry. Our priority is to maintain the shale gas impact fee that was established in 2012, regardless of these discussions, keeping impact fee distributions as currently structured to benefit impacted local governments as well as counties throughout the commonwealth for at-risk bridges and environmental purposes.
Counties cannot achieve any of these priorities alone.
Although they all reflect state-mandated functions of counties, they are better thought of as a partnership between county and state government. Our final priority, itself an underlying theme across all of our priorities, is a pledge by counties to re-engage the General Assembly and the administration in understanding and respecting the state-county partnership from both a financial and regulatory perspective.
Pennsylvania counties are many things, but first and foremost, Pennsylvania counties are here to serve you. We take these priorities seriously, and we are committed to working together to achieve them.
Hill is executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan association representing all 67 counties in Pennsylvania.