Topics highlight stressed community services that affect all residents
(Harrisburg, Pa.) – County leaders from throughout Pennsylvania this week unveiled four key county government legislative priorities for 2017, led by a call to state officials to properly fund critical human services which counties perform on behalf of the state for residents and communities, in addition to maintaining the shale gas impact fee, diversifying the county tax base and working to overcome the devastating effects of substance abuse and drug overdoses.
Washington County Commissioner and County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) President Harlan Shober shared that many people are not aware that counties provide services that touch every person’s life, whether directly or indirectly, on a daily basis. “The services that counties provide require effective resources and partnerships. Those services form the fabric of our communities, our families, our incomes and our security, and are invaluable to our children’s futures,” said Shober. “Our 2017 county priorities first and foremost seek to move forward with meaningful reforms that protect our residents’ health and safety and defend our taxpayers.”
For that reason, explained Dauphin County Commissioner and CCAP Human Services Committee Chair George Hartwick, counties’ top priority in 2017 is to assure adequate state funding is allocated for county human services programs, including the restoration of the ten percent cut to seven key line items that occurred four years ago. In addition, counties will be exploring all possible options to prevent counties from being made responsible in the event of any future state funding delays.
“To say the past several years have been challenging for counties is only the tip of the iceberg,” Hartwick said. “Decreases in state funding for core human services programs, coupled with increased mandates and growing caseloads as well as being forced to pick up the pieces during the FY 2015-2016 state budget impasse – all of these have pushed counties to the breaking point and produced highly destructive financial effects on counties at the expense of county taxpayers. Counties repeatedly have had to step up and provide crucial services on behalf of the state, without proper funding and support by the state.”
Hartwick continued, “At the county level, we have statutory – and moral – obligations to meet those service needs, whether it is children, seniors, those with disabilities, or those with addictions. Those are commitments we intend to honor,” Hartwick said. “If the commonwealth should attempt to balance its budget by lessening or abandoning its commitment to fund these programs, they need to understand they have not held the line on taxes – instead they have endorsed, if not required, property tax increases at the local level. Every legislator, every taxpayer, every family in need should send the message that such a strategy is wrong.”
Another county priority also recognizes the importance of sufficient resources: preventing substance abuse and drug overdose, particularly as the commonwealth works to combat the opioid epidemic.
“As providers of drug and alcohol prevention and treatment programs, counties are seeing firsthand the impact of the ever-increasing opioid epidemic, which touches all of our communities, regardless of age and background,” said Hartwick. “While we have taken many positive steps to address this issue in recent years, more can and must be done.”
Also important to ensure counties are able to provide services is a need to diversify the county tax base, said Cumberland County Commissioner and CCAP Assessment and Taxation Committee Chair Jim Hertzler. “Counties are only authorized to impose one tax – the property tax – effectively tying our hands when it comes to our ability to determine for ourselves fairer revenue alternatives to finance critical county services and to reduce, on a dollar for dollar basis, the often onerous and inequitable property tax,” stated Hertzler. “In fact, about one third of total county expenditures are now covered by property tax revenues – and that proportion has been steadily growing as counties watch service demands increase and state and federal funding decrease.” Counties are asking the state to provide other revenue-neutral taxing options, such as a sales, earned income or personal income tax, that would enable them to match the relative strengths of different taxes to local factors and thus reduce their reliance on the property tax.
“Even though 40-plus years of property tax reform discussions in Harrisburg might lead us to believe otherwise, schools are not the only local governments relying on the antiquated property tax system for local funding,” Hertzler concluded. “Counties must have a seat at the table for property tax reform to truly be a reality and provide meaningful results for Pennsylvania taxpayers.”
Finally, counties’ 2017 priorities include maintaining the shale gas impact fee. According to Erick Coolidge, a Tioga County commissioner who serves as chair of CCAP’s Agriculture Committee and Natural Gas Task Force, the impact fees generated by Act 13 of 2012 have allowed the counties with shale gas wells the flexibility to address their unique local impacts. In addition, the impact fees have brought improvements in environment and infrastructure in all 67 counties. “Should any proposals to place a severance tax on the natural gas industry be considered in the future,” Coolidge said, “counties’ priority is to preserve the current impact fee and its distribution structure to local governments so counties continue to have the flexibility to address critical infrastructure, safety, training, and economic development needs.”
Click here to see remarks from speakers at the news conference, fact sheets for each priority, and a copy of CCAP’s printed version of the 2017 priorities brochure.