Pennsylvania counties have a 235 year history of partnership with the commonwealth, dating from the earliest counties established by William Penn in 1682 (Bucks, Philadelphia and Chester). Over that time, the county role has evolved so that counties are now the primary provider of human services programs on behalf of both the state and federal governments.
These human services programs protect the most vulnerable in our communities – children suffering from abuse, those fighting substance abuse addictions, individuals with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, and seniors in need of long-term care, for instance. However, the far-reaching effects of these services impact all residents, whether they use the services directly or not.
To assure the health, safety and well-being of their residents in this way, counties depend on funding from their state partners. Unfortunately, county capacity to meet service needs continues to be compromised by stagnant state funding, at the same time that program mandates and service needs continue to increase.
Preliminary surveys of counties conducted by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) show that some 80 percent anticipated a budget shortfall as they developed their 2017 budgets, with nearly half pointing to state mandates and increased caseloads as cost drivers. About two-thirds of counties cited the impact of the drug overdose epidemic, while others shared their concerns that state funding will decrease in FY 2017-2018. To make ends meet, three-quarters of counties dipped into their reserves, while more than 40 percent made budget cuts, and one third made the difficult decision to increase property taxes.
Counties also are watching what promises to be a difficult state budget process, with the six-month budget delay of FY 2015-2016 still fresh in their memories. During that time, in the absence of state funds counties put up an average of $12 million to maintain services at a consistent level for their residents, with 70 percent using funding from reserves and about 30 percent borrowing an average of $5.7 million. And they are keenly aware of their limited resources should another impasse occur, with many counties unsure whether they could manage an extended state budget delay.
As we look ahead to the debate on the FY 2017-2018 state budget, we know that the General Assembly and the administration have heard counties’ messages about the need for adequate human services funding. Counties, in turn, understand the budget challenges of the state and in that context appreciate the program allocations Governor Wolf proposed a few weeks ago, which largely maintain current funding levels. But the fact remains that the state’s fiscal condition works against the funding growth needed across all human services programs, so that counties face a double dose of budgetary constraints while trying to do the right thing for county residents.
For that reason, counties’ top priority for 2017 continues to center on human services funding, in particular seeking restoration of the ten percent aggregate cut in FY 2012-2013 to seven line items that impact core services in all 67 counties. Equally important, counties seek assurance that state funds will be provided without interruption for critical human services in the event of budget delays.
Relatedly, counties extend a hand in partnership to the commonwealth as considerations progress on Governor Wolf’s proposals to consolidate several state agencies relating to human services and criminal justice. These discussions about system reform and program restructuring offer opportunities to improve service delivery, and counties, which have both responsibilities for and expertise in delivering these services, must be included in the conversation.
Counties have more than two centuries of experience working with their state partners to assure Pennsylvanians have access to critical services that affect the fabric of our communities. Counties will continue to seek ways to strengthen that partnership in the years to come, so that appropriate structure and resources are in place to effectively plan for the future.