Budgets, Bluster and Block Grants

It seems like a long time ago now that all the campaign talk was about a county budget deficit. Now it seems a long way from reality, as it turns out we really didn’t have a budget deficit at all. That’s right, after all the relentless attacks against me, my colleagues and predecessors, the audited statements recently issued by the County Controller show that the budget was essentially balanced overall.

This is why people don’t trust politicians. Too many of them never reveal the whole story. It’s all just campaign bluster. All fluff, no facts.

But the point here is not to crow or feel vindicated. It’s to reemphasize what I’ve said for years. The county is well run, pays its bills, has low debt and low taxes, and a $41 million fund balance. It’s true today, and it’s been true for years. We’ve made difficult decisions on spending, reduced staff, incorporated technology, and used energy efficiency projects to save. Most importantly to me, these solid financial numbers have been accomplished without sacrificing quality services to our residents.

And I’ll add here that there was never any “found” money that the Tribune-Review story eluded too. Some accounts were reclassified due to changing government accounting standards. But no one found a sack of money under the bed. The funds were always accounted for. This budget was balanced the only way it could have been … spending less and having higher revenues.

Our budgets are always passed on time, too. Why do I mention that? Because I am sick of getting e-mail newsletters from Governor Corbett bragging about passing a budget on time. It’s the bare minimum requirement.

The punctuality of the state budget is one of the few things the Governor and Legislature have to be proud of.

Yes, they didn’t raise any taxes. We’ll hear that a lot. But neither have I in the budgets I’ve passed. We should hold elected officials to a higher standard than that. The job is bigger than that (or should be).

Again, the big losers in the budget battle are the most vulnerable – people with disabilities, the homeless, those battling drug and alcohol addiction and others. Funding for these human service programs were slashed another 10 percent. (And as I like to remind everyone, these are chronically underfunded programs to begin with). These are also services administered by the county, so it’s left to commissioners to deal with the aftermath.

Adding insult to injury is the onerous idea to start putting state funding for county human services into a block grant. Thankfully, the Governor’s idea to do it statewide was shot down thanks to some brave and thoughtful Republicans in the General Assembly (particularly Rep. Gene DiGirolamo from Bucks County, Chair of the House Human Services Committee). But now up to 20 counties statewide can apply to pilot the block grant. This idea is being sold under the same tired advertising of “local officials know better”. While true, it’s only half the story, and really more a marketing message than anything.

I have no interest in making Westmoreland a pilot county. The programs we administer and the people we serve are far too important, and in many cases the circumstances are far too fragile, to simply test the governor’s ideas. It’s important, too, to understand that these are essentially state programs. Counties administer them, but in no way have the resources to properly fund them. The state is abdicating its duty to work to improve these programs. Our supposed leaders in the state are walking away from their responsibilities to be accountable for them. And it pits underfunded human service providers in the county against one another for money. It’s a bad idea here and statewide. And yet another “solution” from Harrisburg in search of a problem.

The further the state removes itself from those served by human service programs the easier future cuts will be. We’ve seen this song and dance before. The county already receives an annual Human Services Development Fund Block Grant from the state to allocate as we please within certain parameters. That funding has been cut roughly 75 percent in the past decade. Westmoreland County used to receive $1.1 million in 2002 to serve vulnerable people. Now, it’s about $400,000. This is what happens to block grants. The need certainly doesn’t diminish, only the dollars.

Let other counties do this, learn from them, and not use our most vulnerable as test subjects. I have no interest in disrupting the services of Westmoreland residents – many of whom depend on us for their safety and well-being. No thanks. I’d just as soon read more junk mail about on-time budgets.