After nearly five months with no state dollars coming in, Bucks County officials have decided to hold onto funds they would normally send to the state.
“I think yesterday’s news, that a budget framework had fallen apart, sort of prompted our commissioners to make this move,” said Christopher Edwards, spokesman for the Bucks County Commissioners.
After announcing they would consider holding on to the remittances at a Nov. 18 commissioners meeting, Edwards said the three commissioners and eight row officers decided unanimously to stop payments.
The independent row offices bring in millions in fees each month, with the recorder of deeds amassing the most, around $3 million a month, he said. That money will help offset the loss in state aid.
“At this point, the county is spending about $6 million to $7 million out of our own general fund to fund services that would have been funded if there was a state budget,” said Edwards. He said the county spent more than half of its $50 million reserve fund since budget talks first stalled in early July.
With the last potential political compromise fizzling out before a budget even took shape, counties across Pennsylvania are running out of money.
With no state dollars to pay services such as prekindergarten, child protection and food banks, “all of the local services, the counties are providing directly,” said Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
At a recent meeting in Hershey, association members voted to explore a lawsuit against the state to try to free up funds for counties, even when the state budget is late. Solicitors are weighing two options: whether county expenses could be declared “essential” under the 2009 law that allows Pennsylvania to pay state workers, who are considered “essential,” without a state budget; and whether the counties can legally withhold funds from the state during a budget stalemate.
“This can never, ever happen again,” said Hill.
While Montgomery County has cut payments to social services, Commissioner Josh Shapiro said he’d rather support a compromise in Harrisburg than a lawsuit. Montgomery looked into holding onto remitted payments, but decided against if after the county solicitor decided the move was “illegal … because the elected officials who collect those funds are acting as an agent of the state,” according to spokesman Frank X. Custer.