Carbon County officials aired their feelings on the 2012-2013 state budget that was signed by Gov. Tom Corbett earlier this week.
During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, the board voted to approve the Carbon County Area Agency on Aging four-year plan, which outlines the program funding, challenges, demographics and more that the county will face in the future.
Commissioner William O'Gurek said that the plan concerns him because the county agency will be facing numerous challenges in the future, such as funding shortages for necessary programs for the growing senior population of the county. The reason for the projected shortages is due to the 10 percent cut to human services in the state budget.
"I'm generally concerned about the state budget," O'Gurek said. "In my opinion, it comes up woefully short in meeting the responsibilities to the people in this state and particularly the counties. I think what it's going to do is result in passing on the tax increase to the property owners in this county for programs that are state mandated to us without the proper level of funding."
O'Gurek noted that the 10 percent cut is lower than Corbett's initial proposal of cutting 20 percent from human services, which handles programs like Area Agency on Aging, Drug and Alcohol, Children and Youth Services and more, because two weeks ago, legislature restored 10 percent of the funding.
"I just find the play on words interesting when the budget proposal was 20 percent cut and then it was cut 10 percent, now the people in Harrisburg are saying they restored the funding," he continued. "I don't know what kind of math that is but it's a 10 percent cut. It will be reflective in Mental Health/Developmental Services, Drug and Alcohol, the Action Committee, Children and Youth, and Area Agency on Aging. So I'm very much concerned about the state budget and how it's going to impact Carbon County in the future because like I say, in my opinion it comes up short."
O'Gurek highlighted a few demographic figures in the Area Agency on Aging four-year plan.
According to the latest census figures, the population of Carbon County seniors 85 and older increased by 40 percent from 2000. Also, four years ago, there were 932 Carbon County residents age 65 or older living on poverty level income. Today, that number has jumped up 300 percent to 3,320.
There are also staffing issues, service utilization issues and limited resources available due to funding on the state level.
"I just can't imagine how the legislature can sit in Harrisburg and know the numbers and see that the population is obviously and thankfully living longer and has a more of a demand for services, yet in their infinite wisdom they're cutting programs like Aging," O'Gurek said. "I think as commissioners we should be concerned how this budget cuts back necessities for the most vulnerable people in this county. I think sadly enough it's likely to be passed on to local people in taxes because the state is not living up to its responsibilities."
Commissioners Wayne Nothstein, chairman; and Thomas J. Gerhard echoed O'Gurek's thoughts on the upcoming state budget.
"It's going to hurt us all," Nothstein said. "It's really sad what's happening to this country in general. I certainly share those concerns of where we get the funding, I just don't know."
Gerhard said that he felt that if a state mandates a program, then it should be their responsibility to fund it.
"Two or three years into a program they (the state) cut the funding and it goes back on the county and here we are left holding the bag and now it's our responsibility to make decisions, do we raise taxes, do we lay people off," Gerhard said. "It's very frustrating."
He added that the 10 percent cut in human services funding still represents a loss of $84 million.
"That cut is extremely devastating," Gerhard said.
Nothstein then discussed the governor's pilot program, which creates a block grant for the seven categories in human services. Currently in the program 20 counties will be able to designate which category gets more funding from the state budgeted amount.
"I don't feel we're ready to go into a program like that," he said. "There are too many questions on how it's going to operate."
He noted that he feels the local human services departments that utilize the funding should have more control over designating where the money goes because they know the departments better than the counties.
O'Gurek added that the problem with the block grant program is "10 percent less is 10 percent less."
"If we prescribe to the thinking that we need to put more money into mental health/developmental services, which I'm in favor of, if we do that then it's taking away from Children and Youth, Action Committee, Drug and Alcohol," O'Gurek said. "And when those programs run short and complain, they will say it was the commissioners cutting the funding. It's Harrisburg's way of passing it onto the county. I think the governor's block grant program falls short and I think for that reason the legislature said we're not going to jump into it with all 67 counties. In the past consumers have sued the state for insufficient funds and not providing funds for their responsibilities to deliver in terms of services. If this happens it's likely that those suits will be passed on to the counties because we will not be providing the funding; I think it just pushes the responsibility onto the counties that should be the state's to take care of these people."
Nothstein agreed with O'Gurek's thoughts on the state pushing the responsibility onto the counties.
"The budget is going to hurt us now," he said. "The budget we're going into just started July 1, maybe that 10 percent we just lost was in our budget already. Now we're 10 percent behind on our county budget for the year."
O'Gurek said that the county will probably continue to provide the same amounts in funding for human services because "it's difficult for us to rob Peter to pay Paul and leave one of them short."
He then fired on the house appropriation's continued decision to give the Senate and House members a cost of living increase.
"What gets me is they are sitting there and cut these programs and the house appropriations committee set aside $1.7 million for cost of living raises for the senators and house representatives, and then they're cutting funding for these people who can ill afford not to have services provided for them. I just don't understand this whole thing. I think it's going to be tough for all of us.
"Lawmakers will tell you by statute they are entitled to cost of living increases because years ago they set it up by law," O'Gurek continued. "Well I don't see any of them lining up to change the statute and there's enough of them. They could all get up and introduce legislation to call for a change of the statute that calls for cost of living increase to be automatic, especially in these tough times."
Gerhard agreed with O'Gurek about the state officials' cost of living increases.
He added that the financial picture is very frustrating.
"I think when Tom Corbett took office as governor he made a pledge not to raise taxes and he's done that," Gerhard said. "But now he's taken that (no new taxes pledge) and put it on the 67 counties, and now as county commissioners we have to accept that burden and we have to make very difficult decisions. Do we raise taxes, what do we do? None of us want to do that. It's very, very frustrating right now."
Nothstein said that the state has made numerous promises over the years to help taxpayers and then went back on their word.
For example, Nothstein said, was the Local Share money from casino revenue. It was initially designed to give property tax relief. Instead only 32 percent goes to relief and other various projects, while the rest of the money is designated for other things.
The commissioners will now face a very challenging budget season as they begin working on the county's 2013 budget. To date, the county has not raised taxes in nearly a decade.