How are we doing locally?
Graphic illustration by DAVID W. ROWE
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address, speaking to the challenges facing the country.
Local government leaders are also reviewing the state of their counties, and mapping out plans for cutting costs, raising revenue and providing services.
The heaviest budget burdens are the costs of emergency communications technology, prisons, and human services, compounded by stagnant revenues, said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
Commissioners chairmen in Carbon and Monroe counties, and Schuylkill County's administrator shared their thoughts on how their counties are coping.
"Due to the downturn in the housing market, the lack of housing and business construction, and decreased property values in Carbon County, we have been forced to raise property taxes in 2013, and (are seeing) an estimated increase in property tax revenue in 2014 of about $30,000," said Carbon County Commissioners' Chairman Wayne Nothstein. "Increased costs for services, far exceeding growing revenue, will cause us to either raise taxes or reduce services."
Struggling to make ends meet
Carbon has already made painful cuts.
"Non-mandated services, such as solid waste and recycling, have been eliminated, as well as reducing staff in many offices to try and balance the budget," Nothstein said.
Monroe County adopted a 4-mill tax increase in 2011, said Commissioners' Chairman John Moyer.
"But no increase has been required since then, and we have been able to substantially increase our fund balance with the taxes we levy. The biggest impact we have seen from the economic downturn is that our growth in property tax base has been much slower than it was during the early 2000s," he said.
Schuylkill County Administrator Mark Scarbinsky said the county "saw its first tax increase in 10 years, necessitated by continued shortfalls in revenues and increases in general operating costs, including collective bargaining agreements, health care costs and pension obligations."
Hill said stagnant construction growth is the biggest factor in county shortfalls.
"With a lack of new construction, we can't project the same rate of growth in property tax values as you could have a few years ago," he said.
Meanwhile, costs continue to rise.
Communications technology is constantly evolving, and costly, Hill said.
The state's 911 systems were originally funded by a $1 to $1.50 surcharges on landline phones. As more people switched to cell phones, lawmakers added a surcharge to that technology. However, many more people are using prepaid phones that don't carry the surcharge.
"The 911 funding fee structure hadn't changed since 1990, yet we have had continuing and unanticipated growth in technological needs," Hill said. "We have to adapt those kinds of things. They're driving our 911 costs. That's a huge bottom-line driver right now for counties."
Scarbinsky said Schuylkill is upgrading its 911 center in light of a federal mandate for radio frequencies.
"More than $16 million of general obligation bonds were committed to this state-of-the-art system upgrade, which will be completed by the fourth quarter of this year," he said.
Prisons are another dollar-burner. Many are overcrowded, forcing commissioners to consider new construction, more staff and more overtime.
"Our goal is to reduce the rate of crime and recidivism. What we have been looking into is the cost increase due to prison population, is the possibility of day reporting centers, drug courts and other ways to relieve the prison population and avoid the construction of a prison addition, which comes with addition staffing costs," Nothstein said.
"We have also privatized the food service at the prison which has reduced the cost of operation. The other issues being faced in Carbon County is the increased criminal cases being filed and adding court costs through the increased staffing levels."
Schuylkill County is dealing with the same issues.
"The prison overcrowding situation gave rise to the implementation of a new prerelease program in September, which operates through sophisticated monitoring and testing of individuals and reducing the number of inmates at the prison," Scarbinsky said.
Peoples' needs rising
Unemployment rates also remain high, causing a cascade of troubles and costs.
"Counties get hurt during periods of unemployment because of the stress on families," Hill said. "There is almost a direct correlation between unemployment and the need for social services."
Unemployment can trigger divorce, custody disputes, child abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse, he said. Counties are seeing human services funding cuts at the federal and state levels.
"The cutbacks of both federal and state funds continues to strain the ability to support safety nets for county residents," Scarbinsky said.
"The county, through involvement in the state's new Human Services Block Grant Program, will plan to utilize funding in a more flexible fashion to channel funds to more appropriate areas.
"Schuylkill Community Action is the county's housing support entity and has positioned itself to assist with the housing needs of our residents. As the needs continue to grow, the county is positioned to collaborate with other nonprofit and religious organizations in supporting these needs."
"Monroe County will be able to continue providing social services to those in need as long as the commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not further reduce funding for such programs. We have worked hard to try to eliminate the overlap in services offered to the same individuals by different groups," Moyer said.
While counties are struggling to make ends meet, some recent changes have helped stem the fiscal ebb.
State law now bars medical providers for prisons to charge counties more than the allowable rates for Medicare or Medicaid, saving millions of dollars, Hill said.
Marcellus gas fees have helped counties, even those without wells. Hill said that money raised by the state's new $2.4 billion transportation bill for bridge and highway repair will also help counties.
Carbon County is upgrading its lighting to save money.
Monroe County is working on improving its infrastructure to attract more business, and Schuylkill is making strides in creating new jobs 1,800 last year, Scarbinsky said.