Clinton commissioners want to slow county growth

LOCK HAVEN — Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder took a hard line on slowing county growth in a discussion about the 2018 budget at a work session Monday.

“We’ve got to draw a line in the sand somewhere,” he said. “We need to stop expanding personnel.”

County wages, salaries and benefits currently make up 45 percent of 2018 county budget expenses. And that’s without the commissioners honoring many personnel requests from county department heads.

For example, Children and Youth Services (CYS), which operates at around $4.9 million and will increase to around $5.3 million in 2018, did not receive funds for a new position it had requested to offset caseload and paperwork volume.

In the case of CYS and the county prison expansion, the problems of society are causing growth in county services, Snyder said.

He added that the courts also asked for a new position, and that request has not been honored.

Many staff members in CYS put in a “tremendous amount of overtime” due to high caseloads, unpredictable hours and a high volume of paperwork, the commissioners discussed.

But Commissioner Paul Conklin said if CYS can justify hiring an extra person to take care of its increasing workload, then the issue is something he wants to look at in more detail.

Commissioner Pete Smeltz said CYS could look at designing alternative schedules to cut down on overtime costs, such as having some caseworkers work noon to 8 p.m. if most of their home visits occur in the evening.

He said the county could cut spending in many departments by making an effort to “match the shift to the work.”

Richard Morris, a resident of Lock Haven, said he would much rather have the county spend money on a vital societal agency like CYS than a new vehicle for the coroner.

This prompted the commissioners to engage in a discussion about the role of government for its people.

Smeltz said he was disturbed by the condition that society is in today, referring to increased, cyclical crime and drug and alcohol abuse.

“This is happening all over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” he said. “When it hits the bottom, where does it fall? On us” the county governments.

Earlier in the meeting, the commissioners debated the purchase of a new vehicle for Coroner Zach Hanna for which they had budgeted around $63,000. However, they are now looking at a Ford F-350 truck for the coroner, for $57,605 from Kovatch Ford in Nesquehoning.

Hanna had proposed using some money from the vital statistics fund and some from the general fund.

Snyder, on the theme of slowing county spending, was not convinced.

“I’m just not sure we need a vehicle of that magnitude for the coroner’s office,” he said.

Some concerns were raised about mileage reimbursement costs, high vehicle maintenance costs and the implications of letting Hanna use the vehicle for personal errands.

“We should consider, perhaps, a lease option,” Smeltz said. A vehicle could be leased from county or city law enforcement to defray costs, he explained.

Smeltz said the commissioners want to consider all options before they purchase a vehicle, to make sure it is economically in the county’s best interest.

“I don’t know that we have to be in a hurry to make this decision,” he said. “This is not going to be an easy decision.”

The commissioners eventually tabled the discussion.

The commissioners will hold a special meeting Dec. 19 at 6 p.m. to address the coroner and treasurer salaries. Hanna’s current salary is $50,236 and treasurer Michelle Kunes’ is $59,224.

After all the talk about county spending in the budget, the commissioners expressed worries about what they feel is an upward spending trend in county government.

“I feel like it’s a freight train out of control,” Smeltz said.

He said there are certain county programs like Reach Out Mentoring through CYS that really need to be funded because they provide positive role models and non-school activities for children who may lack those opportunities at home.

Moreover, the 4-H program that is part of Penn State Agricultural Extension approached Clinton County about offering its services to residents of Lock Haven. The services would cost the county extra money. Smeltz said he doesn’t think the budget has room for that.

“We’re spending so much money on the symptoms of our diseases that we’re not spending money on the diseases,” he said, referring to county spending on drug and alcohol recovery programs, the prison, probation and programs for troubled youth.

In order to deal with societal issues in a holistic way that will eventually cut spending, Smeltz said the county must spend more up front.

For example, commissioners approved the hiring of three to four new employees at the prison to focus on mental health care.

If they don’t invest that money up front, Conklin said, 60 percent of inmates come back within three years.

“It’s a lot cheaper to fix (mental health problems) than to keep that person in jail,” said Smeltz.

But, he stressed, sometimes the costs are just too high. And if commissioners don’t want to raise taxes, they seem to feel they can’t spend money on proactive government services.

Also Monday, the commissioners discussed upcoming re-appointments for various county boards and authorities.

The county planning commission, the Ross Library Board and the sewer board are three that have upcoming re-appointments.

Conklin expressed concern that the sewer board would not have a quorum to conduct business in January. Allison Township, Flemington and Lock Haven are not represented at this time.

Smeltz and Conklin agreed that some county boards and authorities should delay their reorganization meetings in order to get new appointees approved by the commissioners.

Also Monday, the commissioners discussed a tax revenue anticipation note that they plan to approve this Thursday. The bridge loan will allow the county to borrow the money it needs to make it through a low-revenue period, until property tax payments start coming in and the county is able to pay back the loan in full.