If the county government seems like it has a low public profile lately, maybe it’s because, unlike other levels of government, it hasn’t been subject to incessant gridlock.
During a breakfast engagement Tuesday morning with the Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce, Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler relayed a comment from an attendee at a recent County Commissioners’ Association of Pennsylvania conference.
“He said ‘I think the county commissioners are about the highest level of government in our country that still works,’” Hertzler said. “When you think about local government … it’s where the rubber hits the road. There’s a lot of talk in Harrisburg and D.C. but not much seems to get done.”
Hertzler’s colleagues, Gary Eichelberger and Vince DiFilippo, agreed that their three-member body was remarkably undramatic.
“I think we’re a good team — we certainly have our moments, believe me — but we discuss items, we can disagree, but we get it done,” DiFilippo said.
“This board is very focused on the people’s business and that’s a refreshing change,” Eichelberger said.
“I think there’s a lot of truth to that,” he said, referencing Hertzler’s anecdote. “We’ve seen counties have to assume more and more responsibility across the state … especially in this area since we are in growth mode.”
During their annual presentation to the chamber, the commissioners stressed the extent to which county government has had to take the reins to address the county’s increasing needs that aren’t being addressed at the state or federal level, and to keep the day-to-day organs of government running.
The county’s long-term financial outlook continues to be sound, DiFilippo said, noting the county’s reserves are strong enough that it has been able to go four years without a tax increase, despite gradual cost increases. The county’s bond rating is still AAA, allowing it to borrow at low rates for capital projects.
This is critical given several large upcoming expenses, all of which are critical to the county’s basic functions.
The county’s 911 system and public safety radio network will need a major overhaul over the next several years, and capital repairs and improvements are needed at Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation, the county-owned nursing home.
The state will also be adding a seventh Court of Common Pleas judge to the county judiciary in 2020, with the county facing down significant costs to renovate its court offices to accommodate the extra judicial staff.
DiFilippo said the county government has taken the initiative on workforce and transportation issues. The county-sponsored Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp. is working to develop and organize training to address the county’s’ shortage of skilled technical labor.
The commissioners were also recently successful in their push to have Capital Area Transit, a joint agency of Cumberland and Dauphin counties and the City of Harrisburg, contract with York-based Rabbittransit for management services.
“This is a big first step toward improving transit efficiency in our region,” DiFilippo said.
Further, the county’s electronics recycling program — set up due to inaction at the state level on fixing disposal regulations — has enabled area residents to dispose of over 300,000 pounds of unwanted televisions, computer parts and other items.
The county has also been successful in its multiyear plan to repair or replace the county’s 19 bridges and their adjacent roadways. The county infrastructure plan uses the $5 vehicle registration fee that counties are authorized to collect under state Act 89, which has generated roughly $1.1 million per year since 2015.
“That money is allowing counties to tackle the backlog of structurally deficient bridges across Pennsylvania ... but it doesn’t address the future, namely the future of widening I-81 throughout Pennsylvania,” Hertzler said.
Data from the American Society of Civil Engineers shows that 34 percent of Pennsylvania’s traffic is heavy trucks, more than double the national average. Statewide, time and fuel lost in congested traffic saps $3.7 billion per year.
Hertzler said the county has been told by PennDOT that the cost of widening I-81 between I-78 and the Maryland border is $2.7 billion, with little to no word on any state or federal financing plan.
“We need the federal government to step up and help us,” Hertzler said, adding that he was “underwhelmed” with the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan and it’s lack of detail as to how $200 billion in federal funding would leverage a total $1.5 trillion package, as Trump has promised.
“We need Congress to stop kicking the can down the road on this, because the can is stuck in traffic,” Hertzler said.
Possibly even more than I-81, the county is facing a public crisis over opioids, not only in the human cost, but increased costs to county government that aren’t being covered by the state or federal governments.
The county’s Children and Youth Services division saw a 26 percent increase in out-of-home placements last year, with 81 children removed from their homes in the last quarter of 2017 alone, Hertzler said. Of these, he said, two-thirds were due to parental drug use.
Data from the county coroner also shows that toxicology costs were $87,797.13 in 2017, more than double what was budgeted just a year prior, due to the need to confirm cause of death on an influx of overdose victims.
The county has signed on to a lawsuit, in conjunction with a number of county and municipal governments nationwide, against certain manufacturers and distributors of opioid medications, maintaining that the pharmaceutical industry inappropriately promoted the drugs and downplayed their risks.
Eichelberger said, however, that the suit was not a quick fix.
“To me, it’s very different than the tobacco settlement,” he said. Opioids do have a legitimate pharmaceutical use, as opposed to tobacco, making the case much less of a slam-dunk.
“We did have a healthy debate on that, but there was ultimately a unanimous decision to proceed on litigation,” Eichelberger said. “We chose an imperfect solution, but in this business there are no true perfect solutions.”