The National Association of Counties will get its first new executive director in more than 20 years next month.
The organization has chosen Matt D. Chase to succeed Larry Naake, who's headed the organization since 1991. Chase, 41, is currently at the helm of the National Association of Development Organizations, which represents groups like councils of governments and metropolitan planning organizations. He's held that role since 2003. Chase, a native of upstate New York, takes the reins of NACo at a time when counties face financial challenges along with a federal government poised to make big decisions that will have significant impacts on local governments. Just how rough is it for counties right now? As Governing's Alan Greenblatt writes this month: It’s not news that all levels of government are experiencing fiscal stress just now, with revenue intake still struggling to top levels last seen before the financial crisis in 2008. But counties are feeling a special pinch. They are typically funded largely by property taxes, which have taken a hit due to falling assessments in both the residential and commercial markets. Another big share of their funding comes from states and the feds, which have cut aid to localities deeply and consistently in recent years. “It’s a terrible time for us,” says Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties. “I can’t remember, in my 40 years of being involved in this, a worse time for us.” Counties face more limitations than cities and states when it comes to their ability to raise revenue. And they function in the background, lacking the visibility that comes with having high-profile people like mayors and governors serving as advocates. Chase calls counties "the invisible government" and notes that even though many in the general public don't know exactly what counties do, the functions counties perform -- public safety, social services and health care -- are "the building blocks of communities." At NACo, Chase hopes to make the case for counties not just to federal officials, but to citizens, nonprofits and the private sector as well. By recruiting allies who understand the importance of county work, Chase reasons, they can serve as effective advocates on counties' behalf. In an interview with Governing, Chase rattles off a list of the biggest issues facing counties in the next year. The debate about Medicaid is critical, since counties play a role in health care in about 30 states. Sequestration -- the automatic $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts split between defense and non-defense programs poised to begin next year -- is also big. Direct federal aid represents just a small fraction of county budgets, but counties rely heavily on state funds that often originate at the federal level. And then there's the brain drain counties and other local governments are expecting to deal with as baby boomer civil servants retire. Chase sees NACo's role as not just as advocate for pro-county sources, but as a hub for counties seeking information on how the changing landscape will affect the way they do business. He also sees NACo continuing its role as a source for information on best-practices, so that jurisdictions across the country can share information about the best ways of doing business. Chase said he was drawn to the position, despite the big challenges facing counties right now, because of the range of issues counties tackle. "If you like domestic policy," Chase says, "there's not a better job in America."