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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Human Services Funding, Tax Options Top County Leaders' Wish List

Update:  8:30 a.m.  The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania canceled its media briefing Monday on its legislative priorities due to the weekend's snowstorm. The organization instead issued a press release. 90.5 WESA News spoke with the group's executive director in advance of Monday's planned event.

In two weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to unveil his 2016-17 budget. But county leaders from across the state want to make sure the governor and lawmakers hear their legislative agendas first.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania will unveil its priorities Monday, at the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg.

“The budget is always a focal point and the relationship between counties and state government in development, and adoption of that budget, is something that is always critically important,” said the group’s Executive Director Doug Hill.

The priorities also include more flexibility in revenue opportunities and behavioral health reform.

Hill said the budget is always a priority because 80 to 90 percent of the services the counties perform are based on state or federal mandates, and about, “Sixy percent of the average county’s budget consists of appropriations from the state or ‘pass throughs’ from the federal government.”

The county leaders want to make sure that what happened during the ongoing budget stalemate never happens again. The counties were required to continue providing human services, but no money was coming from Harrisburg -- not even federal dollars, which are supposed to “pass through” the state to the counties.

“Those were all withheld as part of the impasse, but we think there may be mechanisms in some, if not many of them, that will allow their allocation to us despite the lack of a state budget bill,” said Hill.

Counties are under a state mandate to provide mental health and drug and alcohol services, but there isn’t enough funding from the state to meet the need, according to Hill.

“The number of people with mental health issues who end up in the county jails -- and that’s because the dollars available for treatment have been stagnant or declining over the last decade,” he said.

Counties rely on real estate taxes as their local revenue generators. He said county leaders want income options, but need state approval.

“What we’d like to achieve there is a trade-off to reduce our reliance on property tax and go to tax bases that better match our local economies, like a sales tax or an earned income tax, or a personal income tax,” he said.

According to Hill, officials should be able to take a look at their local economies and demographics, and then determine the best mix of taxes.

Hill said the organization was pleased that a key part of its agenda was approved in 2015, which included improving county 9-1-1 services by levying a charge on mobile phones. He said it provided adequate funding, while expanding the emergency service to accept text messages.