The state’s Early Intervention Program might just succeed in right-sizing Cumberland County’s financial position, but it wouldn’t be the Department of Community and Economic Development’s first success story.
Marita Kelly, Early Intervention Program manager at DCED, named four other counties — Luzerne, Northumberland, Berks and Adams — who applied for the program and navigated through the process successfully.
“We hope to promote good financial management,” she said. “There are municipalities that may have some financial issues that may need some improvement and some are just interested in good government operations.”
DCED guidelines define the early intervention program as a “pre-emptive step for municipalities who feel as if their financial situation, while not yet formally declared distressed, are realizing difficulties and seek to improve their financial position.”
Luzerne and Northumberland counties both sought out the program amid growing uncertainty over finances, but in the case of neighboring Adams County, Kelly said money wasn’t the issue.
“Adams County by contrast is approaching the whole situation from a different perspective,” she said. “They are the fastest growing county in the state. They were expanding to become the next level of county classification.”
Kelly said the county wanted to review all government functions before adding a fourth magisterial district judge to the payroll.
“So the first phase was a review of all county operations,” she said. “The second and third phase had specific connotations to just the court and judiciary system. They really used it as a tool to become the best county possible.”
Cumberland County is growing, too. In June 2011, the Pennsylvania Secretary of State bumped the county’s fourth class classification up to third after the 2010 census revealed a 10.2 percent spike in population. The third-class county classification includes counties with populations between 210,000 and 499,999.
But the county also suffered some very public financial setbacks over the last few months — starting last October with a wage freeze for all non-union employees and a potential 22 percent property tax hike scare for residents.
Two months later, the commissioners whittled down expenditures, but still passed a budget complete with a 12 percent property tax increase and a $1.7 million deficit.
Bond refinancing and other operational measures realized another $750,000 in savings to the general fund, but the gap still exists, and a top-to-bottom review of the county’s financial responsibilities will require more time and effort than county staff itself can provide, county officials said.
The board of commissioners represent opposite sides of the coin when it comes to Cumberland County’s reasons for seeking out the assistance of the DCED.
For Chairwoman Barb Cross and Commissioner Jim Hertzler, the county will use the program as a tool to improve already sound operations — not stave off financial distress, as Commissioner Gary Eichelberger sees it.
Cumberland County officials estimate the cost for the Early Intervention Program, if their application is accepted, could hit the $50,000 mark — if no other grant opportunities are realized. The money would come directly out of the general fund, i.e. taxpayer wallets.