Statewide county association directors and staff gathered recently at NACo headquarters to share some of their thorniest “war stories” — about complicated issues back in their home states — in hopes of finding solutions from their counterparts.
Members of the National Council of County Association Executives took part in two days of meetings Aug. 28-29 about how to tackle their most complex problems at the NACo-NCCAE Knowledge Management Forum. It was the second time the group had met; this year’s focus was on knowledge management.
“It’s a copycat world, where we’re seeing a lot of the legislative proposals in particular, that are being kind of shopped from state legislature to state legislature,” said NACo Executive Director Matt Chase, opening up a discussion Aug. 28 among participants.
“How can we, both NACo and state associations, collaborate on research, on some of the messaging, even the grassroots advocacy and make sure that we’re aware that some of these issues that you’re dealing with in your state aren’t unique?” he said. “There’s a cookie-cutter approach being copied, state by state. How can we work together to shape the messaging, the research and even in some cases the practice?”
Bill Peterson, executive director, Iowa State Association of Counties, said he has noticed legislation on gun and tax policy issues pop up in his state that were likely “written someplace else other than Iowa.” Hearing how other associations have dealt — either successfully or unsuccessfully — with similar legislative proposals is helpful, he said.
The participants brought up some of the most challenging issues they’re facing in their states. Here’s a look at some of them:
Interpreting and paying for crime victims’ rights in Montana
The Montana Association of Counties is the lead plaintiff challenging Marsy’s Law, a crime victim’s rights law that got its start in California in 2008, named for Marsalee (Marsy) Nicholas who was shot and killed in 1983. Her brother, Henry T. Nicholas, a tech billionaire, has personally funded campaigns to support the measure in California, Illinois, North Dakota and South Dakota, spending about $17 million. Last fall, it was passed by 66 percent of Montana voters last November, said Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties.
The law, though, is seen by some as having unintended negative consequences such as delays in trials, case backlogs and increasing costs. The association, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a county attorney and a victims’ rights advocate filed suit to block the law on June 20. There are efforts to pass the law in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii and Ohio.
Jail costs on the rise in West Virginia
Another thorny issue for counties: The increasing costs of jailing people arrested on opioid charges. The opioid crisis is “busting budgets right and left,” in West Virginia, said Vivian Parsons, executive director of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia.
While counties run the jails, they have no ability to manage the costs, Parsons said. Counties must pay the state a per diem but often have no say for when to release inmates. Coupled with the loss of coal country jobs and economic downturn, and declining revenue from property tax and a coal severance tax, counties are hard pressed to pay the per diem fees. With opioid use on the rise, counties are seeing more arrests and longer detentions in the state’s regional jails. Currently 13 counties owe $5.5 million for housing inmates at the state’s regional jails, according to a report in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. County commissioners currently pay $48.25 per inmate per day.
“We haven’t been able to find the silver bullet on this,” Parsons said.
Oil pipeline challenges property tax increase in Minnesota
Association of Minnesota Counties’ Jill Suurmeyer, research analyst, said counties in her state are grappling with a dispute a pipeline company is having over property taxes. Enbridge Energy disputed its 2012 property tax bill, saying it had gone up 24 percent, “far above what it had anticipated based on previous assessments,” the StarTribune reported; the total for the assessments in dispute is $50 million. Clearwater County alone mimay need to refund as much as $7.2 million in back property taxes, more than the $6.8 million it takes in each year in property tax collections, the newspaper reported.
Suurmeyer said her association is also looking at how to help its members with HR issues such as engaging and retaining employees, model personnel policies, job sharing examples, hiring tips and more. Wisconsin Counties Association Executive Director Mark O’Connell said contracting with a private employment agency has worked well in his state.
In California: Battling general revenue slowdown, public records requests
California counties are seeing a general revenue slowdown, with a few notable exceptions, said Geoffrey Neill, principal policy and fiscal analyst for the California State Association of Counties.
Although home prices have recovered, many homeowners are sitting on real estate and renting it out, Neill said. Property taxes remain the same unless a property is sold, thanks to Proposition 13; another snag is that even when a property is sold, it’s assessment can only be at the original price plus a maximum of 2 percent per year; that means property tax revenues are staying artificially low.
Half of the counties in the state are below property tax dollars received in 2009. Adjusted for population and inflation, 87 percent of counties are receiving less revenue than 2009, he said. “We’re a high tax rate state, but we have tons of exemptions — unlike most of you, we tax no services. There are certain things that almost every state taxes, that’s almost unheard of in California.”
Population growth creates transportation problems
In Washington state, population growth — and the transportation that’s needed to keep up with moving more people around — is one of the biggest challenges, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties. A new regional airport needs to be built, but authorities are running into a “not in my backyard” attitude from residents.
Also in Washington, the state requires that counties provide indigent defense without any funding from the state. In 31 other states, states provide half the cost of trial court indigent defense; 23 states pay the entire cost, according to a recent editorial written by Vickie Raines, commissioner from Grays Harbor County.
In April, the ACLU announced it was filing a class-action lawsuit against the Office of Public Defense, the state agency responsible for public defense in Washington, for failing to enforce to enforce minimum standards of public defense in Grays Harbor County.