PA counties unveil 2020 legislative priorities
HARRISBURG — At a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda, county leaders from throughout Pennsylvania unveiled five key county government legislative priorities for 2020, led by a call to state officials to properly fund mental health services, in addition to finding solutions to the emergency medical service crisis, diversifying the county tax base, expanding rural broadband access, and funding adult probation services.
County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) president and Clinton County commissioner Jeff Snyder shared that county governments are responsible for a wide variety of critical services, including provision of human services, emergency management and 911 services, administration of the courts and corrections system, elections, maintenance of county bridges, and county property assessment rolls, as well as environmental and land use planning, protection of open space, community and economic development and many more issues that touch the lives of every Pennsylvanian.
Snyder noted, “Services provided by counties form the fabric of our communities, our families, our incomes and our security. Our primary 2020 county legislative priorities build upon services that affect every person’s life, whether directly or indirectly, on a daily basis. Counties believe these priorities are essential for us to continue to successfully provide critical services to Pennsylvania residents and we call on Governor Wolf and the General Assembly to continue their active engagement with counties to assure that the critical duties counties provide as partners with the state are properly structured and funded.”
Counties’ number one priority is funding for mental health services. Community-based mental health services – such as community residential programs, family-based support, outpatient care and crisis intervention – are critical to the well-being of constituents and communities. Ed Bustin, Bradford County commissioner and member of the CCAP Comprehensive Behavioral Health Task Force, stated, “For too many years, state funding for mental health services has lagged far behind needs. Mental health base funds for expanded services, beds and diversions must be increased.”
Bustin continued, “There also is a recurring threat to eliminate the successful Behavioral HealthChoices program, which would disrupt care and treatment for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, as well as increase the cost of services. For the past 20 years, Behavioral HealthChoices has allowed each county the flexibility to deliver mental health and drug and alcohol services to individuals enrolled in Medicaid. Efforts to dismantle Behavioral HealthChoices must be abandoned.”
Governor Wolf has recently called on the state to expand resources and comprehensive support for mental health services – to end the stigma related to mental illness and to eliminate barriers to ensure that every Pennsylvanian has access to necessary mental health services – and Bustin noted, “We need a targeted, strategic investment of dollars into county services to maintain the existing safety net and to bolster the availability of mental health services to those who need them. Without funding, new initiatives will not have the support they need to succeed, much less have the real community impacts we desire – and that our constituents deserve.”
Regarding counties’ second legislative priority, emergency medical services (EMS), Kevin Boozel, CCAP first vice president, Butler County commissioner and CCAP EMS Task Force co-chair, noted, “Emergency medical services in Pennsylvania are in crisis, as many of our communities are wrestling with a decline – and sometimes even an outright lack of – these services.”
EMS services have been studied several times in the last 15 years, including the 2004 and 2018 reports, known as SR 60 and SR 6, authorized by the General Assembly. A recent CCAP EMS Task Force report covered a wide variety of issues, such as recruitment and retention, funding and reimbursement rates, service models and training requirements. The Task Force, working with CCAP’s County Governance Committee, will seek to be an active partner with state policy makers to address policy and funding solutions.
Mark Hamilton, Tioga County commissioner and EMS Task Force co-chair stated, “In particular, we will be working to allow county or multi-municipal authorities that would be capable of county-wide or regional EMS service delivery. The Task Force also will work to develop a toolbox that can assist each county in bringing together local stakeholders to review coverage needs and counties will strive to be an active partner with state policy makers in seeking policy and funding solutions to assist with this crisis in the coming year.”
Tony Mussare, Lycoming County commissioner and CCAP Assessment and Taxation Committee chair, commented on the counties’ third priority related to county property tax reform. “Schools are not the only local governments relying on the antiquated property tax system for local funding,” said Mussare. “Counties provide a host of mandated services but are only authorized to impose one tax – the property tax.” For many years, counties have sought a menu of local taxing options like local earned income taxes, personal income taxes or sales taxes to offset their reliance on the property tax, diversify their tax base, and for each county to individually determine fairer revenue alternatives to address demographics and incomes, diverse economies and different balances between residential and commercial properties. Mussare continued, “We cannot forget that any tax affects not only the person who pays it, but also the government that must provide critical services and address infrastructure needs in its communities. Counties must have a seat at the table for “property tax reform” to truly be a reality.”
Rob Postal, Mifflin County commissioner and CCAP Community and Economic Development Committee chair, addressed counties’ rural broadband expansion priority by noting that reliable high speed internet has become the backbone of business, education, health care, emergency services, and other key parts of our everyday lives. Postal stated, “Rural communities cannot continue to wait for infrastructure that is critical for quality of life and economic vitality. The lack of high speed broadband affects, for example, the agricultural industry that has become increasingly dependent on connectivity to improve productivity on farms.” Postal continued, “In order to solve this problem for future generations, the commonwealth must develop and support partnerships among federal, state and local governments, higher education and other research entities, as well as the private sector, to develop strategies toward meaningful progress on rural broad-band expansion.”
Counties’ final 2020 legislative priority supports adult probation funding. Nearly all of Pennsylvania’s counties provide adult probation services, which support community supervision options for non-violent offenders. These services assist counties in making smart decisions about the use of jail and reducing recidivism through the use of evidence-based interventions that promote positive behavioral changes. Like many of the services counties provide, a shift in focus to pre-trial supervision is stressing the system and state allocations for adult probation have failed to keep pace – in fact, state funding has been stagnant since the 2012-2013 fiscal year, following a 16% decrease over the previous six fiscal years.
CCAP President Snyder noted, “At the same time, the expectations of the county probation system are increasing, this funding pattern limits how effectively counties can use adult probation programs as part of a comprehensive criminal justice system. Counties will benefit from funding support that will be provided through the second phase of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, but additional state funding will still be necessary for counties to continue keep pace with the growing need for adult probation services.” Snyder called for enhanced cooperation among commissioners and judges to assure these funds are being directed to appropriate services, and also stated, “Ultimately, without the less expensive and more effective option for community-based supervision, more non-violent offenders are likely to be diverted to costly jail sentences.”