Jul. 23, 2016
Almost a decade after the start of the Great Recession, counties still feel its effects on their strained budgets. A new NACo survey found that 44 percent of county officials reported cuts to their county’s programs or services because of budget constraints in the last fiscal year.
NACo’s new research, Priorities in America’s Counties 2016: A Survey of County Officials, examines the top priorities and leading challenges in county governments ahead of he November’s general electionn. The survey examines key areas for counties such as infrastructure investments and the impact of state and federal policies.
The survey shows that many county officials (40 percent) are concerned that budget constraints will weaken the county safety net, putting struggling families and individuals at risk, especially in the long term. Counties often provide safety net services because of state mandates or the their role in administering federal programs. Over one-third (36 percent) of respondents to the 2016 NACo survey indicated that providing hospital care for individuals without any health insurance or ability to pay is one of the most expensive unfunded mandates for counties. Since counties need to raise the revenue to fund these mandates while also contending with state-set caps on their revenue sources, budget constraints can lead to cuts in staff or service levels across any number of programs and services.
Behavioral health-related issues, especially in the areas of substance abuse and mental health treatment, emerged as top challenges for counties. Respondents to the NACo survey identified substance abuse as the top public health challenge. Survey respondents suggested that treatment options for substance abuse are limited because of a lack of treatment providers — 65 percent of county officials cited a shortage of mental health providers as one the greatest issues affecting access to quality health care in counties.
In addition to the public health challenges they pose, illegal drugs and prescription opioids are major public safety issues in counties. Substance abuse is the greatest threat to public safety according to nearly three quarters (72 percent) of 2016 NACo survey respondents. County officials indicated that any additional funding to expand the capacity of behavioral health programs would support efforts to reduce substance abuse through treatment, while at the same time assist counties in tackling the impact of substance abuse on the community.
NACo’s new analysis also shows that county officials would like to see more funding for families with children living in poverty. County officials identified their county’s involvement in early childhood development programs, nutrition assistance programs and local workforce development programs as providing pathways out of poverty. Additional funding would help strengthen and expand the reach of these programs and services for the most vulnerable populations and support solutions that break the cycle of poverty.
The local workforce development system supports county economic development. County officials responding to the 2016 NACo survey said that high housing costs are the largest challenge to economic development. Unaffordable housing can push some residents to move away from the county, taking their skills with them and adding to the challenge of building a strong workforce that can attract new businesses and opportunities to counties.
County officials responding to the NACo survey indicated that a shortage of workers with skills sought by employers is another significant challenge to economic development. The local workforce development system provides assistance to residents to find training and employment that will lead to more skills, better paying jobs, higher wages and greater economic opportunity for individuals, families, businesses and counties.
Further infrastructure investments would improve economic conditions. Specifically, additional funding for roads and bridges would have the greatest positive impact on county economic development, according to county officials responding to the 2016 NACo survey. County officials also identified more funding for broadband as a significant contributor to economic development in counties.
The local-state-federal partnership is critical to the ability of counties to address their top priorities and concerns effectively. Counties receive funding from the states and the federal government to support local workforce development, nutrition programs that assist low-income families with children and surface transportation projects, among others.
Federal policies, however, received low marks from survey respondents. Nearly half reported they do not believe that the current direction of federal policies and programs contribute to innovation in county operations. A similar share of county officials does not believe that the direction of federal policies and programs are helping their county achieve its programs and services goals.
“Priorities in America’s Counties 2016: A Survey of County Officials takes the pulse of counties in time for the November elections, which will bring a new federal Administration, changes in state legislatures and state governorships. The results will help NACo, NACo members and other county stakeholders educate new state and federal policymakers on county challenges and priorities,” said Emilia Istrate, PhD, NACo research director
To read NACo’s new research report on county issues and priorities, visit: www.naco.org/countypriorities