OPED: State, county partnership is vital

Douglas E. Hill
County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania

There are countless ways Pennsylvanians interact with county government every day — 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.

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 residents, reduce costs, assure quality services and make sure taxpayers' money is being well spent.

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. Some counties have seen more than 100 percent increases in referrals. The new laws came without any additional state funding, leaving our county children and youth agencies struggling to perform this important responsibility.

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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.

Another toll is that of the opioid epidemic. 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. Counties support the governor’s recent action to declare the heroin and opioid crisis as a statewide disaster emergency.

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.

Additionally, 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.

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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.

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. Replacement costs for nearly 40,000 voting machines is between $2,500 and $3 thousand 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.

Douglas E. Hill, CCAP

— Douglas E. Hill is executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP).