The ‘never again campaign’: County commissioners issue 2016 priorities

    Representatives for Pennsylvania's 67 counties proposed five legislative priorities for the year. Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Representatives for Pennsylvania's 67 counties proposed five legislative priorities for the year. Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Representatives of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties proposed five legislative priorities for the year.

    Each year, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania holds a press conference at the capitol to announce their agenda for the year. With most of Harrisburg still under snow by Monday morning, this year’s press conference was downgraded to a press release.

    But the group says they are fully committed to these five issues that affect all 67 counties in the state.

    Budget reforms

    The big one, of course, is the impact of the budget impasse on county governments.

    “We are saying never again,” said Franklin County commissioner and CCAP president Bob Thomas. “We are making it a priority that counties never have to go through that again.”

    Counties had to take out loans, hold off on payments and cancel social service programs while waiting for a budget to pass in Harrisburg. Thomas realizes his group might not be able to accelerate budget negotiations in the statehouse. He just wants to protect counties from the fallout.

    “State offices and state employees didn’t used to get paid during delays, but then a court ruled that they are essential,” he said. “Counties should be seen as essential. Counties deliver very similar services, whether it’s protecting seniors or child protective programs.”

    Child Protective Services

    The other budget reform that the county commissioners would like to see focuses on social services. As those programs have become more expensive to administer, state funding has remained stagnant or declined.

    One example is the child and youth services department in each county. In the last few years, since the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State, a rash of new laws have passed to protect children from abuse and neglect.

    Doug Hill, CCAP’s executive vice president, says the group is glad that more cases are being brought to light. But counties are reporting a caseload increase of 30 to 70 percent, and state funding hasn’t kept pace.”We get that call, we have to go out and investigate,” said Hill. He says the new laws have “been the biggest driver in our caseload increases, yet that line was virtually flat funded this year as well.”

    The group is going to work towards getting more state funding offered to counties on that front.

    Behavioral health reform

    In addition to child and youth services, the county commissioners plan to tackle behavioral health — “the broadest term for a list of things, from mental health to drug and alcohol addiction” said Hill.

    CCAP wants to help counties develop better community support that works for different situations.

    “The percentage of people with diagnosed mental health issues in the prisons continues to grow,” said Hill. “So what we’re trying to do is deal these and other elements of the mental health system in a comprehensive way.”

    Counties can create “diversion” programs that intervene when someone who is mentally ill or addicted to drugs is charged with certain low-level crimes. Instead of being sent directly to prison, a judge can direct him or her to a treatment facility.

    CCAP hopes to help more counties find the proper resources to launch those types of programs.

    Tax reform

    As Keystone Crossroads has reported, many counties in Pennsylvania have gone years, or decades, without doing a property tax reassessment. There are no laws that require a regular reassessment and the cost burden falls to the counties.

    The result is outdated property taxes and lost income for the county. CCAP wants to help counties get state funding to perform a reassessment, as well as find ways to reform tax codes.

    In prepared remarks that were not delivered (thanks to the snow), Jim Hertzler, the chair of the CCAP taxation committee, said, “for many years we have…sought statutory authority to decrease our reliance on the property tax…It is important for local governments to be able to use a balanced portfolio of local taxes, matching the relative strengths of different taxes to spread the tax burden fairly among taxpayers.”

    Shale gas impact fee

    The group’s last priority has to do with the Marcellus Shale impact fee levied on each gas well. The county commissioners would like to see the current system continue:  gas companies are charged and the proceeds are directed to the counties.

    “That money has meant a lot to all 67 counties in the state,” said Thomas. “It went primarily to the host counties, but even in Franklin County, we felt the impact of that funding.”

    Franklin County, far out of the reach of the Marcellus Shale, was able to contribute to a land conservation project and work on some aging bridges.

    These five priorities will dictate CCAP’s efforts for the next year. Though they cover a wide range of issues, the focus is clear.

    “Some people are calling it the ‘never again campaign,'” said Hill. “I don’t know if I would call it that. But we are seeking solutions to make sure that we and our programs and our taxpayers and our clients don’t suffer the way we did over the last six months in another budget impasse.”

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