The National Association of Counties (NACo) begins its annual legislative conference tomorrow in Washington, DC. Earlier this afternoon, NACo President Don Stapley, a county supervisor from Maricopa County, Ariz., President-elect Valerie Brown, a former state legislator-turned-Sonoma County, Calif. supervisor, NACo executive director Larry Naake and others stopped by the 13th Floor to give us a preview. (They're pictured, right, in Governing's conference room.)
Not surprisingly, the top item on everyone's mind was the economy. Today's USA Today had an excellent feature noting that a mere 35 counties accounted for half of all home foreclosures. Many of those are occurring in California and Arizona. Along with home foreclosures, Stapley noted a massive outflow of undocumented immigrant workers. Prior to the economic downturn, Maricopa County had a population of 4.2 million people, plus half a million illegal immigrants, mainly from Mexico. Roughly half the undocumented immigrant population is now gone, he said. That's hurt the businesses that once served or depended on this population and is an indication of the decline in the construction industry. Counties throughout California have also seen undocumented workers (and their wages) disappear, Brown noted.
Although Stapley sees signs that real estate prices (down 40 percent over the past year in Arizona) may be stabilizing, the broader picture is grim. "One of the things about local government revenues is that we're about 18 months behind the curve," said Brown. That means 2010 will likely be as bad as 2009. There is a bright spot, though: The Obama administration and the $787 billion stimulus plan. Roughly $40 billion has already been released, and everyone at NACo has been impressed by the administration's determination to spend it quickly and well. Already, the NACo crew has talked rural broadband with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
NACo officials also attended the recent White House health summit -- and have been uniformly impressed by Valerie Jarrett. Four other Cabinet secretaries are scheduled to address NACo officials over the course of the weekend -- a level of outreach to counties unprecedented in recent years. Says Stapley, "I was impressed -- as an Arizona Republican -- at how sincerely focused they are on rolling this stimulus out. I hope that it works. We have one shot at it. They better not screw it up." As for NACo, "We're going to make sure we do everything we can so that people know" what resources are available.