Robert Swift: Capitol Matters: Counties struggle for state bucks
HARRISBURG - County commissioners are calling for an extension of a human services block grant program beyond the 20 counties already participating in a pilot.
They suggest that the program which gives commissioners some flexibility to shift money among seven programs with fewer state requirements is working and should be available to all counties that want to participate.
But the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania said last week while unveiling 2013 priorities that Harrisburg needs to keep funding for those county-level human service programs at least at current levels in the fiscal 2013-14 budget. Preferably, commissioners would like to see state aid restorations to offset cuts that date back a decade.
"Counties are now at a point where they cannot sustain any additional decreases without compromising services for our most vulnerable citizens," said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick.
The current budget cuts state aid for the block grant programs by 10 percent, or $84 million.
The seven programs in the block grant include community mental health services and mental disability services, the human services development fund, homeless assistance, child welfare grants, the Behavioral Health Services initiative and Act 152 drug and alcohol services.
Luzerne and Wayne counties are participating in the pilot program launched last fall. Lackawanna and Schuylkill counties also applied to be in the pilot, but the enabling law provided for a 20-county limit even though 30 counties applied.
Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-124, Tamaqua, is sponsoring legislation to expand the number of participating counties to 30 and give those counties that previously applied first shot at the new slots.
The Corbett administration is looking at expanding the pilot, said state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby recently.
Another priority for commissioners is requiring federal accreditation for county directors of veterans' bureaus so they can have better access to veterans' information, said Carbon County Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, who chairs the CCAP military and veterans' affairs committee.
With the enactment of the natural gas drilling impact fee law, counties have a lead role in development of the Marcellus Shale reserves.
Commissioners are seeking action at the state level to improve safety and planning for gathering gas pipelines and give county conservation districts a greater role in reviewing drilling plans for erosion and sedimentation control, said Lycoming County Commissioner Jeff Wheeland.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part.