Pa. county commissioners put mental health funding front and center on 2020 budget wish list

Clinton County Commissioner Jeffrey Snyder, president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, speaks during a news conference in the Pennsylvania Capitol on 1/14/2019 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

(*This story has been updated to include comment from Wolf administration spokesman J.J. Abbott)

Pointing to a demand for services that hasn’t kept up with funding, Pennsylvania’s county commissioners called on legislators and the Wolf administration to boost state support for mental health services during the coming debate over Pennsylvania’s state budget.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is slated to roll out his sixth budget proposal to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Feb. 4. During a Capitol news conference on Tuesday, commissioners said they need “targeted, strategic investment” of public dollars to “maintain the existing safety net” for the new fiscal year that begins on July 1.

The annual press event by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania is a rite of budget season, in which the local government association lays down its legislative priorities for the new year. Also at the top of its wish list: support for county emergency services, rural broadband expansion, funding for adult probation programs and tax reform.

“Services provided by counties form the fabric of our communities, our families, our income and our security,” Snyder said in a statement, adding that the group’s “legislative priorities build upon services that affect every person’s life, whether directly, or indirectly, on a daily basis.”

The news conference in the Capitol rotunda came just about 90 minutes after the Wolf administration released a report by a suicide prevention task force that called for, among other things, expanded mental health services and to “elevate mental health as a public health issue.”

Counties are often on the front lines of providing such services, but “for too many years, state funding for mental health services has lagged far behind needs,” Bradford County Commissioner Ed Bustin said Tuesday.

Bustin said the commissioners’ group wants to work with the administration on its own mental health priorities, but “without funding, new initiatives will not have the support they need to succeed, much less have the real community impacts we desire — and that our constituents deserve.”

*Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said Tuesday that the administration “agrees we need to work together to improve mental health services,” and looked forward to “continuing conversations” with the commissioners’ group and others over the course of the budget debate this spring. 

On Tuesday, the commissioners’ group also called on lawmakers and the administration to grant them broader taxation authority to pay for the array of services — from courts and law enforcement to support for older Pennsylvanians — they provide.

“Schools aren’t the only ones who rely on an antiquated property tax system to provide services,” Lycoming County Commissioner Tony Mussare said. “Counties provide a host of mandated services but are only authorized to impose one tax — the property tax.”

Republican lawmakers have spent decades trying to reform Pennsylvania’s school property tax system, only to find themselves repeatedly stymied because they’ve been unable to build legislative support for the multi-billion dollar tax hike needed to replace the real estate levy.

Pennsylvania’s property tax, explained: A moral wrong, or the building block of government finance? 

County officials have spent years unsuccessfully pursuing a menu of alternatives, from local earned income taxes to county sales and personal income tax, Mussare, the chair of CCAPs’ Taxation Committee, said.

“We cannot forget that any tax affects not only the person who pays it, but the government that must provide critical services and address infrastructure needs in its community,” he said.

Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told the Capital-Star Tuesday that GOP House leaders are in the “early planning stages of what could be — and could not be — part of budget ideas and negotiations.

“We look forward to engaging with all involved in the months ahead,” Straub said.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press