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The Top Issues County Officials Are Confronting

The pandemic has presented counties with a big bill in terms of dealing with health costs, including mental health. Their workforces are strained, but luckily there’s plenty of money on tap from Washington.

Aerial view of the Glenn L. Jackson Memorial Bridge.
Counties own 45 percent of the roads, 40 percent of the bridges and a third of the airports in the country.
(Bob Pool/Shutterstoc)
The National Association of Counties is currently (through Feb. 16) holding its legislative conference in Washington. Counties enjoyed unusually close relations with the Trump administration, something NACo officials say has continued into the Biden administration.

“Increasingly, whoever’s running the White House, from both parties, understands that to get things done on the ground they really need local governments,” says Matt Chase, NACo’s executive director. “Counties run public health and own 45 percent of the roads, 40 percent of all the bridges and a third of the airports, so if you want to execute your national vision, you need folks on the ground.”

Governing spoke with NACo leaders about what counties want from Washington and what they’ve been accomplishing on their own. Edited excerpts follow:

Governing: Can you talk about the federal money you’re getting through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the CARES Act and the infrastructure bill and what you’re doing with it — and what sort of help you need from Washington in terms of flexibility in spending it?

Larry Johnson, DeKalb County, Ga., commissioner and NACo president: NACo has been able to coordinate with the Department of Transportation to have a call for all of the counties. Every two weeks, there are 300 or 400 counties or more on this call to talk about infrastructure. From the very beginning, it’s been very hands-on for us. We had a major bridge that was out and we had to have railroad consent to start the designing process. I talked with Mayor Pete (aka, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg) and we connected with the railroad on the phone. It would have taken us months to do the work with our local government to get the process rolling. This was just one example.

Denise Winfrey, Will County, Ill., board commissioner and NACo first vice president: We have been able to invest in the quality of life. We have in my county some areas where pipes date back to the 1950s. As you might guess, those are poor areas and they’ve been ignored. We’ve been able to prime those systems for upgrades and step up their timetable so that now, rather than in five years or 10 years, people in those areas can have safe water systems and don’t have bleeds from stormwater into the sewer system because of breaks in the piping. So that’s a major impact on how people live in those communities.

Chase: I do have to give (White House ARPA Coordinator) Gene Sperling and the folks at the Treasury Department a huge amount of credit, because they did sit down with us for hours upon hours upon hours as they were developing the interim rule and the final rule to talk to us about the nuances of county government. We submitted over 3,000 individual, specific questions to the Treasury, which literally sat down with our teams and went through the questions. They learned about our coroners. They learned about 911 operators, they learned about the backlog in the court system. They really became students of local government. That was refreshing and I think it played out in a rule that is really flexible.

Governing: Can you talk about COVID-19 and the challenges it continues to pose? Mask mandates and other restrictions are ending but clearly there are still more cases to come.

Johnson: One of the challenges is how you balance the public health concerns with what our communities are going through in terms of economic development, schools, county workforce and service delivery. You want to keep people safe, but you also have to understand that people are suffering from fatigue. When we get to the point where we call it endemic, you get to deal with this like we deal with other viruses that counties deal with, like HIV, H1N1, SARS. We’ve developed a public health infrastructure surveillance system that allows us to deal with these issues in a very safe way.

Governing: You mention fatigue. We are seeing a lot of suicides and substance abuse, with polls showing a significant share of the population experiencing anxiety or depression. How are counties dealing with mental health challenges?

Chase: One of the things we’re going to be doing at this conference is launching a national partnership with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing to get mental health first aid training out across the country. We want to elevate it, to make clear that it’s OK to talk about it. And we want to train people how to see the symptoms, just like you would with a heart attack or some of the other things you can do with basic first aid.

Johnson: We have a pilot program that we had started with election workers, because this has become a mental challenge, dealing with threats and things of that nature. We have worked with our sheriff’s department, our library system, our fire department — we tried to make it as collaborative as possible, because everybody has to deal with this type of stress in the workplace and at home or in the community. Sometimes you have to have someone in the community or in the workplace that can alert other people that something is just not quite right with my worker X — what can I do, I noticed symptoms, I noticed signs, how can I prevent an anxiety attack or something that may go further?

Mary Jo McGuire, Ramsey County, Minn., commissioner and NACo second vice president: What I really love about this pilot — this is a new program for us, and I’m really excited to bring it to my county. We’re working with our own employees. We know that our employees deal with residents who have mental health issues, but this is really about our employees becoming healthy themselves, so that they can really be good for the residents that they work with.
National Association of Counties headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Governing: You bring up workforce. Can you talk about the challenge you face as employers. Workers are receiving more threats and public-sector pay isn’t keeping pace with private-sector raises, so how do you recruit and retain workers?

Johnson: I’m trying to be creative. One thing we’re doing is that, with public safety first, we’re raising the salary of all of those in the police and fire departments. We’ve given them a 6 percent raise and a $3,000 retention bonus. We also raised the pension with a 3 percent match to a 6 percent match. We were doing a 12.5 percent increase in frontline pay with the CARES money, so now we’re going to make that permanent, as we try to make sure we recruit and retain the best officers.

Chase: We have created a network of county administrators, HR directors and others, including elected officials, who are really focused on workforce retention. We have a ton of counties that are down major numbers of full-time equivalent employees that are really working to be more creative with things like remote workforce, alternative schedules, pay and benefits, and redoing job classifications. Leon County, Fla., just did some old school county job fairs, where they actually hired people on the spot that day, when normally it would have taken three months to do interviews and background checks. They totally flipped their hiring system to move much quicker. They’re still doing the background checks and other things, but they kind of do it on the back end.

Winfrey: In Illinois, we have cannabis legislation now that allows smoking everywhere, people can drug up all they want to. But there are a number of people in our penal system whose only crime was that. And so those people now are being expunged, and they’re out in the workplace. Through the expungement, and then through our Workforce Development Board, we allow them to be recertified or trained or whatever, so they are now able to fill gaps. So those are previously excluded workers that are now available to us to help plug some of those gaps in trained workers for companies in our areas.

McGuire: For every county, this is probably one of the top five issues that we’re all dealing with. Even before the pandemic, we were having workforce issues.

Governing: What are some other things NACo is working on?

Chase: One of the things that we’ll be launching soon is a national opioid litigation technical assistance center. We’re working with some other partners to launch a resource for cities and counties who will be receiving opioid dollars so they can really think about treatment, prevention and public awareness. We’ve been working on substance abuse for a long, long time. There will be another huge investment from the legal settlements, so how can we make sure that we’re really making good use of these dollars?

Also, NACo actually helped provide some seed capital to the National Academy of Public Administration to launch a new Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships. What we’re hoping to do is lift up positive examples where state and local governments are working together.

You’ve got states like North Carolina that just appropriated some dollars to the state Association of County Commissioners and the state League of Municipalities to actually provide technical assistance to cities and counties on ARPA and infrastructure investment, making sure that there’s technical assistance and real expertise to make sure these dollars are used appropriately. And in the next couple of weeks and months, we’ll be showcasing where states are providing match money for locals to go after other federal investments, or to close the gap on costs.

Folks want to focus on where they’re not getting along, but we are seeing areas of state and local collaboration. What we’re trying to do is put a spotlight on the fact that government can still work. And there are a lot of places where the states and local governments aren’t collaborating.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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