NEW YEAR, NEW COUNTY PRIORITIES
As the new year begins, Pennsylvania's counties have chosen seven legislative priorities for 2018, each of which showcases the important services they provide to commonwealth residents and emphasizes the critical need to maintain the state-county partnership in service delivery.
The counties' priorities are led by a call to address human services funding and system reform, highlighting the need to restore human services funding to historic levels in the face of increasing mandates and service demands, as well as the restoration of the ten percent cut that occurred in FY 2012-2013 across several key line items. Counties further call for a commitment of full state and federal funding for additional mandates and new program requirements imposed on counties, as well as funding that responds to societal and economy-driven increases in caseloads, as have been experienced by county children and youth agencies. Counties concurrently seek a partnership with the General Assembly and administration on program reform, including efforts for better planning and integration of services.
Preventing substance abuse and drug overdose remains a priority for counties in 2018 as well. Although progress has been made in recent years, counties continue to seek ways to effectively address the opioid epidemic through additional state resources, implementation of best practices and collaboration on a comprehensive response for those affected. Counties will also be seeking to maintain the shale gas impact fee and all current distributions under Act 13 of 2012 regardless of any potential discussion to place a severance tax on the natural gas industry for other purposes. Another CCAP priority is to address the shortage of psychiatric, or forensic, beds in state hospitals for county inmates who have mental illness and developmental disabilities. Prisons are not the place for many of these individuals, and there is a need to expand resources to allow more options for care and treatment outside the prison system. Counties further support, as priorities, additional federal and state resources to assure services are adequate for veterans, as well as resources to address growing voting system replacement needs across the commonwealth.
Finally, counties have emphasized the need to re-engage the General Assembly on the state-county partnership in service delivery as part of their seventh priority on mandate reform. The priority includes re-examining county mandates currently in place and seeking a commitment by the state to work together with counties so that any new or expanded programs are property structured and funded.
More information about the counties' priorities is available at www.pacounties.org by clicking on Priorities under the Government Relations tab.
COUNTIES TESTIFY ON ELECTION CYBERSECURITY
On Dec. 12, the Senate State Government and Senate Transportation committees held a joint public hearing on election cyber security, particularly as it relates to voter registration and voter fraud.
Jerry Feaser, Director of the Dauphin County Bureau of Registration and Elections, spoke about the benefits of the state's motor voter and online registrations systems for citizens and county election offices, but that it is up to the individual registering to provide current and correct information. Noting that neither the online system nor county election offices process applications submitted by non-citizens, he explained most instances in which non-citizens mistakenly become registered to vote have been during PennDOT transactions. Many of these individuals, he said, have contacted his office to remove themselves from voter rolls when they discover the error, but it has a real-world impact when these individuals, who had no intent to vote illegally, fear the effect on their status in the United States.
CCAP Chief Information Officer Rita Reynolds noted that counties take their responsibility for administering and maintaining election duties seriously, and that the evolution of technology is resulting in the rise of security exposures to county systems and data. She shared that election equipment is secured in locked facilities, is never connected to the internet, is tested before and after deployment, is securely transported and is monitored during elections. However, all of voting equipment currently used throughout the commonwealth is at least ten years old, at the same time that technologies are advancing to offer higher degrees of security. State assistance will be needed to achieve certification for next generation systems and to perform upgrades. Funding for voting systems is a 2018 county priority.
Full testimony for both Feaser and Reynolds is available at www.pacounties.org by clicking Legislative Testimony on the Legislative Action Center page.
SENATE ADVANCES BILL TO IMPROVE CHILD WELFARE REFERRAL RETENTION
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee recently reported SB 938, introduced by Sen. John Sabatina (D-Philadelphia), to improve the way referrals to child welfare agencies are retained. Senate Bill 938 was reported by the committee as amended, and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
Specifically, the bill would increase the retention period for all child welfare referrals to ten years; under current law, a General Protective Service (GPS) referral may be retained by county agencies for only five years, and only if it is determined to be "valid" following investigation. The GPS referrals are those deemed less clearly indicative of abuse and generally deal more with issues such as substance abuse, parent/child conflict, lack of supervision, and environmental concerns. The change will benefit counties in making quality assessments and improving child safety, because past referrals to child welfare are better indicators of future abuse than indicated referrals. Prior history can also be critical in assuring thorough investigations, and can help to find a potential adoptive family for a child with few options.
ASSESSMENT REFORM TASK FORCE BILLS INTRODUCED
Several bills developed and supported by the Local Government Commission's Assessment Reform Task Force have recently been introduced as part of the Task Force's ongoing efforts to improve the efficiency, transparency, modernization and fairness of Pennsylvania's property assessment system. CCAP and its affiliate, the Assessors' Association of Pennsylvania, have been an active part of the Task Force, which is chaired by former CCAP member Sen. John Eichelberger (R-Blair), as well as other legislative and state agency representatives.
Two of the bills, HB 1991 introduced by Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) and SB 1006 by Sen. Eichelberger, would strengthen provisions of current assessment law on proper and timely submission of building permits to county assessment offices, to enable accurate property valuation. The bills would also allow counties to implement a county improvement certification form, regardless of whether a building permit is required, to obtain this information.
Other bills, HB 1990 and SB 1007, also sponsored by Rep. Harper and Sen. Eichelberger, would update the Consolidated County Assessment Law to clarify the types of corrections that may be made during an informal review of a property's value, revise the dates by which the county assessment office must mail change of assessment notices after a countywide reassessment, and require the assessment appeals board to furnish notice of rights to further appeal board decisions. The bills further provide for training of assessment appeals board members on the valuation process, legal and constitutional issues, and real estate exemptions. All of the bills have been referred to the Local Government committees in their respective chambers.
Additional bills supported by the Task Force have been previously introduced, including HB 1361, which would add two Certified Public Examiners (a designation which must be obtained by county assessors who value property) to serve on the State Board of Certified Real Estate Appraisers and HB 1594, which would clarify that personnel of a revaluation company with whom a county contracts to complete a countywide reassessment must also be certified as CPEs. Both bills won the approval of the House of Representatives in 2017, and they, along with their respective companions SB 689 and SB 832, are currently before the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.
AG MAY MOVE FORWARD WITH ROYALTY LITIGATON
The Bradford County Court of Common Pleas has affirmed the state Attorney General's right to sue Chesapeake Energy and Anadarko Petroleum related to claims that the companies wrongly deducted post-production expenses from leaseholders' royalty checks, denying preliminary objections raised by the defendants. The lawsuit was originally filed in December 2015 against Chesapeake, alleging that the company violated the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law and engaged in deceptive practices by promising royalty monies that were not paid. At the same time, the Common Pleas judge certified that the case could be immediately appealed to Commonwealth Court regarding some specific questions of law, although it does not mean the case is expected to be resolved soon.
Shortly after the Common Pleas decision, media reports indicated that Chesapeake Energy has agreed to pay $30 million to affected landowners to settle several federal class action lawsuits over disputed royalty payments, following years of negotiations. The agreement would also allow landowners to amend their existing leases to better clarify the terms by which deductions and payments are made going forward. Those reports further indicate, however, that Chesapeake will not go forward with the deal unless the Attorney General's lawsuit is also resolved.
2018 BID LIMIT THRESHOLDS
The 2018 annual adjustments to the bid limit thresholds and telephonic quote thresholds under the County Code and Second Class County Code were published in the Dec. 23, 2017, issue of the Pennsylvania Bulletin. The state Department of Labor and Industry has advised that the change in the consumer price index for the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2017 was 2.2 percent, and so the bid limit thresholds and telephone quote thresholds that took effect Jan. 1, 2018, are $20,100 and $10,900 respectively.