Budget Plan Would Consolidate Human Services Funding into Block Grants

The governor’s proposed budget takes a new approach to human services funding by lumping seven separate line items into a single block grant.  “The innovation will give the counties the flexibility they need to identify their most pressing needs, and apply funds as they know best,” Corbett said during Tuesday’s budget speech

Jo Ellen Litz, CCAP, County Commissioners

CCAP President Jo Ellen Litz of Lebanon County

The increased flexibility is welcome news to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), which has identified human services funding as its top legislative priority.  “Counties not only know what programs and services are needed at the local level, but also how they can be most effectively managed while keeping unnecessary costs to a minimum,” says CCAP President Jo Ellen Litz of Lebanon County.

While combining these seven line items the Corbett administration would cut about 20%, or $168-million dollars.  “So they’re going to have perhaps more flexibility, but somewhat less money,” says House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland).  “Over time, generally speaking, block grants go down not up.” 

But counties are used to human services funding cuts.  In fact, the next budget is poised to be the 10th consecutive spending plan that cuts state aid for the human services counties deliver.  “Although there is an overall reduction in the monetary amount that counties will be receiving for human services, we also think that the administrative savings that we realize will offset and mitigate that impact this year,” says Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes, who chairs CCAP’s Human Services Committee. 

The seven appropriations that are being proposed for block grant consolidation are: Mental Health Services; Intellectual Disabilities; County Child Welfare Special Grants; Behavioral Health Services, Homeless Assistance Program; Human Services Development Fund, and Act 152 Drug and Alcohol Program.

Some Question the Structure of Gov’s Impact Fee

The Marcellus Shale plan that Governor Tom Corbett rolled out provides for an “impact fee” to be adopted by the counties where the natural gas drilling takes place.  In the first year, counties could impose a per-well fee of up to $40,000 dollars.  The maximum fee would drop over the next several years, but Corbett says the revenue would actually grow along with the number of wells. 

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) supports the direction of Corbett’s Marcellus Shale plan.  “Our only issue with the proposals is a significant concern that we have with the plan that the local impact fee would be levied separately by the counties,” CCAP executive director Doug Hill said in an interview with Radio PA.  “It needs to be uniform, it needs to be consistent, it needs to be predictable, and that does not happen if it is county-by-county, with the potential for varying rates within the counties.” 

Some lawmakers agree.  “This proposal only authorizes counties to impose a fee, it doesn’t require them to impose a fee,” says State Senator John Yudichak (D-Luzerne), the minority chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.  In a statement, State Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) called the plan complicated and ill-conceived.

But Governor Corbett calls the structure of his proposed “impact fee” important to the package.  “If you bring the money here to Harrisburg first, history demonstrates to us that administrations and legislatures – the money goes into the General Fund – start raiding the General Fund for other budgets,” Corbett explained to reporters on Wednesday.  “I believe the money needs to go where the impact is.” 

Under the Corbett plan, 75% of the impact fee would be retained at the local level.  The remaining 25% would be divvied up among PennDOT, the Department of Environmental Protection, PEMA and more.

Gov. Tom Corbett

Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his Marcellus Shale plan on Monday.

House Democratic Policy Committee Holds Hearings on Budget Impact

The House Democratic Policy Committee has been holding a series of hearings on the impact of the new state budget.  At a hearing Wednesday, Brinda Carroll Penyak, deputy executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, told the Committee that cuts in funding for mandated programs will mean some tough choices.

Penyak says counties have less desire to raise property taxes than anyone, it’s not something they do freely, and they’re very concerned with how some of the impacts will have to be dealt with locally. She says when mandate lines get cut; anything that might be considered preventative or optional can go by the wayside pretty quickly. She says child welfare funding was reduced by 45 million dollars.

Penyak says cuts in funding for mandated programs have a ripple effect. She says these are not services you can decide not to offer, you can’t put abused kids on a waiting list. She says the ability to provide the service has to come first.

Penyak says the budget also cut funding for the Human Services Development Fund, and it’s now about 70% below what it was a few years ago. She says in a lot of cases, that money is used to pay for things that actually prevent more costly situations from occurring.

Penyak says counties have been getting less and less money for 9 years now. A lot of them have made significant changes and have tightened their belts as much as they can.