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Counties Unveil 2021 Legislative Priorities

News Date: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

County leaders from throughout Pennsylvania have unveiled five key county government legislative priorities for 2021.
County leaders from throughout Pennsylvania have unveiled five key county government legislative priorities for 2021, led by a call for election reforms based on counties’ experience in 2020, as well as expanding broadband, creating solutions to the emergency medical services crisis, protecting funding for county human services, and increasing funding for community-based mental health services.

The 2021 county priorities are essential for counties to continue to successfully provide critical services to Pennsylvania residents – services that affect our everyday lives, health, safety and democracy.

Kevin Boozel, County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) president and Butler County commissioner, noted, “Counties need Governor Wolf and the General Assembly to continue engaging and partnering with us on these priorities so that we can maintain healthy, safe and resilient communities. Together, we can implement solutions that better reflect the needs of Pennsylvanians, improve stewardship of taxpayer dollars, reduce cost, increase local flexibility and assure the quality of services we provide.”

Counties’ number one priority for 2021 is elections reform. Specifically, counties are renewing their call to allow pre-canvassing – that is, opening and preparing mail-in and absentee ballots – to begin prior to Election Day. This would allow counties to focus on administering an in-person election on Election Day, improving workload management and allowing results to be available much more efficiently. Additionally, moving the deadline for mail-in ballot applications back to 15 days will benefit voters by providing more time for the ballot to be able to get from the county to the voter and back again through the mail. This would create less stress and uncertainty for voters and is the best opportunity to enfranchise mail-in voters.

“These two changes alone will address many of the challenges Pennsylvania saw in its 2020 elections, stated Indiana County Commissioner and Chair of the CCAP Elections Reform Committee, Sherene Hess.

But, she noted, counties also seek reforms to address other issues that came up during the 2020 elections – to clarify issues that were the subject of lawsuits, to work with the state on administrative issues and to provide further support for county elections operations – that were outlined in CCAP’s preliminary elections reform report released last week.

“All levels of government must work together to promote a smoother election process, and as the ones who run our elections, counties must be at the table for these discussions,” Hess said.

Counties’ second legislative priority is broadband expansion, recognizing how COVID-19 has further exposed the lack of availability and the need of Pennsylvanians for high speed and reliable internet for business, education, health care, emergency services, agriculture and other key parts of our everyday lives.

“Communities cannot continue to wait for infrastructure that is critical to our economic vitality and our personal quality of life,” stated Rob Postal, Mifflin County commissioner and chair of the CCAP Community and Economic Development Committee. “The commonwealth must develop partnerships among federal, state and local government, as well as the private sector, that can help to deploy the resources and data needed to make meaningful progress on broad­band expansion.”

Counties have been at the forefront of broadband expansion in the commonwealth, and also can learn from best practices and inno­vative ideas, such as regional cooperative models, that have seen success in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.

Counties’ third legislative priority is to help create solutions to the emergency medical services crisis. According to Tioga County Commissioner and Co-chair of the CCAP Emergency Medical Services Task Force, Mark Hamilton, “Many communities wrestle with a decline, and sometimes even an outright lack of, EMS, because of challenges such as retention and recruitment, training requirements, funding issues, and technology support.”  

In 2019, CCAP’s EMS Task Force released a set of recommendations, considerations and opportunities for counties to contribute to solutions, building on the work of the legislature’s SR 60 and SR 6 reports. Counties continue to push for statutory authorization for county or multi-municipal EMS authorities and will work to develop a toolbox that can assist each county in bringing together stakeholders to review community conditions and develop local solutions.  

Counties’ fourth legislative priority for 2021 is protecting funding for human services – services that protect our most vulnerable citizens, including children suffering from abuse, those fighting substance abuse addictions, individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities, and seniors in need of long-term care.

Counties continue to deal with daily challenges, such as the significant increases in workloads to county human service agencies, the toll of the opioid epidemic on families and their children, and the lasting, unknown impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Counties deliver these critical services to meet the needs of our communities, but we also face the reality of ever-stagnant funding to support those needs,” stated Dauphin County Commissioner and Chair of the CCAP Human Services Committee George Hartwick. “Each year, we find ourselves working to prevent cuts in state funding for human services, much less achieving the increases that are so critically needed just to catch up from years of underfunding.”

Counties’ final priority for 2021 is increasing funding for community-based mental health services, such as prevention, crisis intervention, treatment, community residential programs, family-based support and outpatient care.

According to Daryl Miller, Bradford County commissioner and CCAP first vice president, while need has exceeded funding for years, the COVID-19 public health emergency added additional challenges to the existing problems. “The unique set of stressors caused by the pandemic will certainly impact the already-strained web of human services that makes up the fabric of our community safety net,” Miller noted.

Furthermore, there is a recurring threat to eliminate the successful Behavioral HealthChoices program, which would disrupt care and treatment for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians and increase the cost of services.

“Close collaboration between the legislature, administration and counties is critical to addressing the mental health system as a whole,” Miller said. “This includes increasing mental health base funds for expanded services, as well as abandoning efforts to dismantle Behavioral HealthChoices.”

Ultimately, Boozel said, the 2021 county legislative priorities depend upon a strong partnership with the administration and with the General Assembly to move forward with meaningful reforms. “Counties in Pennsylvania will work hard to engage our partners and provide our residents with the best possible services,” Boozel concluded.