Your County Government: What You Don’t Read, But Should

I was the featured speaker at the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce luncheon on April 14. It was a great opportunity to talk to local business leaders about the state of Westmoreland County government. But I also wanted to use the opportunity to talk to them about aspects of county government that are not well known, even though I feel they should be.

I billed the talk as “Your County Government: What You Don’t Read, But Should.” I wanted to focus on the primary mission of county government, which is human services, and also to clarify the state of our budget and misconceptions about how it might be managed.

The feedback I received from the audience was extremely positive. I hope you find it equally informative.

The following is the text of my remarks.

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It is an honor to be with you today to talk about your county government. I have been in office for only 11 months – but I worked for the county for eights years prior – and throughout the years I have had a number of opportunities to talk about county government. And I am always interested to talk in detail about what we, as residents and taxpayers, never really learn about.

County government is the level of government that we don’t study in our civics class, don’t write our term papers about, and rarely hear about on the evening news. But this level of government has a profound impact on the quality of life in an area.

And despite the fact that we rarely talk about it, every four years county government has a funny way of creeping into our minds – and into our yards, mailboxes and highways. Elections seem to have a way of making people pay attention, even if much of it is in the form of bluster and sound bites.

But don’t get me wrong. Even though I am on the ballot this year, this is not a campaign commercial. In fact, it is far from it. My goal today is to give you the unfiltered reality of your county government, and to talk about what you won’t read in the newspaper – even though you should.

One facet of Westmoreland County government you likely know well, our Industrial Development Corporation, does a tremendous job in helping business expand, create good jobs and improve our local economy. Our industrial parks are now prime locations for companies involved in the Marcellus shale gas industry. Four companies new to our area are now located in our parks – including global companies like Baker Hughes and Allied Technologies – that will employ hundreds of workers.

Our prison and probation offices are managing the ever-rising offender population that is the result of ever-stricter laws. The county’s state-of-the art public safety system ensures quick, quality emergency response. And our parks system is the envy of the region.

But those things – as good as they are – are all secondary to the primary mission of county government which is Human Services. That is what I want to focus on today – the services we provide, the people we serve and the costs associated with those programs.

Human services will account for 52 percent of the county’s $318 million budget in 2011, or more than $166 million. More on the budget later because, to me, figures only tell part of the story. People are the reason these programs exist. So I want to focus on those thousands of families who rely on county government for services and assistance, mostly through no fault of their own.

Forgive me if I throw a lot of numbers at you. But these statistics help demonstrate the magnitude of the work going on in all of our communities.

Our Children’s Bureau serves children at risk of abuse, abandonment or neglect. Sadly, the bureau’s work is constant – in volume and in degree of difficulty. In 2010, the agency investigated a staggering 2,550 cases. It is required by law to investigate any and all allegations involving a child. Of those, 2,550 investigations, 339 cases were opened for services. Those new cases joined the hundreds of others already open for services. Our Children’s Bureau is now actively aiding nearly 6,000 children – a mind-blowing number by any measure. These are not nameless, faceless children. Many are kids we’ve seen at our child’s school, at a neighborhood gathering, or in the local grocery store.

There is some “feel-good” aspect to the Bureau’s work fortunately. Every year – usually with a celebration at the Courthouse that would warm anyone’s heart – we finalize anywhere from a dozen to two dozen adoptions.

Now, from the young to the aged, but vulnerable nonetheless.

Our Area Agency on Aging offers services for senior citizens – our parents and grandparents – to help keep them in their homes, to keep them safe and healthy, and to provide them recreational and social opportunities. As you would imagine, with our aging population and life-expectancy increasing, the demand for these services has never been greater. In 2010, the agency made more than 125,000 contacts regarding potential services. Of those contacts – there were 2,800 assessments, care management services for 1,400 people, and in-home services for 340 seniors who would otherwise be in a nursing home.

The agency also provided more than 150,000 home-delivered meals to 750 consumers. There were nearly 260,000 visits to the Agency-administered senior centers throughout the county. And more than 5,000 seniors received transportation funding assistance.

As the number of seniors in our area continues to grow, the demand for services will only continue to rise and so will the pressure for funding, staffing and programming.

Another option for those seniors unable to stay in their own homes is the county’s public nursing home, Westmoreland Manor. Once referred to the “home for the indigent”, the 400-bed Manor is now an award-winning, modern, family-friendly facility that I would put up against any public nursing home in the Commonwealth. The Manor also offers independent living in the very popular Eagle Tree apartments.

The census at the Manor is consistently at or near 100 percent. And amazingly, it’s been 20 years since the county has had to invest one local dollar in this facility, which has an annual budget of $43 million. We have been able to operate it using only Medicare, Medicaid and insurance reimbursements. Great credit goes to the private management company hired years ago to help administer the facility.

The final office I wanted to discuss today is our office of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services – formerly known as Mental Health/Mental Retardation (a name change, by the way, that was long overdue to remove negative stigmas and stereotypes). These programs, I always confess, are near and dear to me as I have an 8 year-old with Down Syndrome and a 14-year-old with autism, among my wife and I’s five children. I make no apology for being an advocate for these programs and the need for more funding.

The county serves more than 18,000 people with varying degrees of special needs, offering early intervention, specialized therapies, housing, respite for families and more. Total funding for these services is in excess of $82 million. But really, the story here is not who is being served, but who is not.

In Westmoreland County alone, there are currently 38 people on an emergency waiting list for funding. The money is simply not being allocated by the state to care for these folks. These vulnerable people are desperate for help. They are in temporary inadequate housing, in improper institutions or worse. There are hundreds more who are waiting for services, as they live with elderly or incapable family members. The situation is getting worse instead of better. And, sadly, this is a crisis in Pennsylvania that constantly gets swept under the rug as we debate matters much more trivial.

The only explanation I can come up with as to why this is, is that it’s a difficult problem whose solution will require a lot of creative thinking and a lot of money. So I don’t see Harrisburg seriously discussing it anytime soon.

Now, remember that big number we discussed earlier – $166 million for human services, or more than half of the county’s budget? The county’s share of local dollars – or property tax revenues – for those services is less than $5 million. Most is funded through state and/or federal funds. But the county’s contribution is much more than just a donation, or random figure. It is a match. In other words, to get a certain amount of state dollars, we need to contribute a certain amount of county dollars. The ratio of state to county match can range from 50-50, to 80-20 to 90-10, to even 100 percent state and federal money for certain programs.

This type of arrangement leads to some difficult decisions – mostly, because we as Commissioners are not necessarily masters of our own domain for the programs that make up the majority of our budget. Certainly, neither Westmoreland County nor any other county has the resources to fund these life-saving programs in their entirety. But this complex funding relationship makes many of our budgeting decisions unique and often difficult to explain simply.

For example, knowing that we spend roughly 10 cents on a dollar of local funds for a specific program, if we cut a dollar from the budget we’re basically sacrificing $9 of services. Or to put it in bigger numbers – in order to save a million dollars, we could lose $9 million in services for all those people we discussed earlier. That to me is the epitome of “penny-wise/pound-foolish”.

County governments are also left with an image or a PR problem. It’s fashionable these days, I know, to talk about cuts in spending, cuts in programs…cuts, cuts, cuts. It’s the Holy Grail for politicians at every level. And for our sound-bite obsessed culture, it’s tempting to propose cuts based only on dollar amounts or percentages. And believe me, I am all for getting the most value out of every dollar.

But remember what we just talked about. In a $300 million budget that is so interdependent on other funding sources, it isn’t possible to simply whack some random number off the top so to speak. At the county level we would not just be cutting spending, we would be losing revenue in the process. It’s complicated and hard to put into simple bites. That’s one of our biggest challenges. And I hope my presentation today has helped offer some insight.

Now, cutting spending within certain programs and discretionary costs is possible, of course. We do it all the time. But it rarely makes for a big splash or tidy news clips. Savings are usually the result of a culmination of spending cuts, and it is almost always more global-type policy decisions that result in the most savings.

So I hope that I was able to give you some appreciation of what the county does, the programs we offer, the people we serve, an how it is paid for.

Thank you for having me here today. It was my pleasure.