County Commissioners Association Warn Of Impacts With Budget

As the General Assembly and Administration begin to advance a budget vehicle for FY 2016-2017, Pennsylvania counties are eyeing the calendar anxiously, recognizing that the start of the new Commonwealth fiscal year is now less than two months away.

Their worries are well-founded; a recent survey by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania showed counties put up an average of $12 million in local funds to weather the FY 2015-2016 impasse. Philadelphia, most citizens fail to realize, is a county as well as a city and must bear the same brunt.

Throughout the FY 2015-2016 impasse, counties continued to provide critical services for residents, such as mental health, intellectual disabilities and children and youth services, despite not receiving money owed to them from the state until well over six months into the fiscal year. According to CCAP President and Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas, “The cost of the commonwealth’s unprecedented delay fell squarely on the shoulders of our local property-taxpayers. The administrative burden fell directly on our counties, our providers, our community foundations, and those we serve.”

The CCAP survey showed that the impacts of the impasse were significant and far-reaching. On average, each county had to find about $12 million to keep services available for residents during the FY 2015-2016 impasse – some 20% of their operating budgets. Nearly three-quarters of counties drew down on their reserves – a few completely – and almost one-third had to borrow funds, incurring bank fees and interest payments. Even with those measures, half of the counties also had to delay payments to providers and other vendors, and delay other expenditures and capital projects.

“The difficult circumstances of the prolonged State budget impasse in FY 2015-2016 brought counties to a crisis point. Another impasse, or lack of sufficient funding, could create a more-dire situation,” said Craig Lehman, CCAP board chair and Lancaster County Commissioner. “It could trigger a compounding effect – counties with depleted reserves will have to borrow sooner, and most likely borrow larger amounts, incurring more fees and higher interest payments and at the same time negatively impacting the delivery of needed services.”

CCAP First VP and Washington County Commissioner Harlan Shober stated, “Other contingency plans such as reducing services and staff, delaying or completely stopping provider payments, or in extreme cases, shutting down some county operations to the bare necessities, become more and more likely the longer an impasse goes on. Clearly our residents are the ones paying the ultimate price of delays in state funding for these much-needed services.”

As their top priority for 2016, counties are asking the General Assembly to approve an appropriately funded FY 2016-2017 state budget, on a timely basis, that recognizes the critical importance of the services counties provide, so that counties and those they serve are not forced to bear the costs and burden of another impasse or of underfunded services.

“The Commonwealth must restore funding for vital human services programs to levels that are appropriate to meet local need,” stated Thomas.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the many county employees, providers and residents who helped us weather the severe effects of the state budget impasse,” stated Doug Hill, executive director of CCAP. “But equally important is addressing the historic pattern of underfunding across human services line items that counties provide on behalf of the state. Without appropriate funding from the state and federal government, counties will be faced with the difficult choice to either curtail vital services for the commonwealth’s most vulnerable citizens or increase local property taxes, something no one wants to happen.”

Counties take the lead in delivering some of the most-vital services expected by residents, including children and youth, mental health, intellectual disabilities, drug and alcohol and other human services, as well as those surrounding environmental issues, courts, prisons, elections, tax assessments, community and economic development and emergency services.

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