Airing Coconino County concerns in Washington
By Louise Yellowman
Coconino County District 5 Supervisor
More than 2,000 county officials came from around the country March 4-8 to help strengthen the voice of county government on Capital Hill by attending the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) 2006 Legislative Conference.
NACo members participated in professional workshops and educational seminars designed to enhance their own public service delivery skills, and heard special addresses from national leaders. County official also got the opportunity to network with their colleagues from around the county to exchange ideas on how to best serve the public.
The workshops were carefully developed to cover issues vital to local government, including fighting potential reductions in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, emergency management and disaster preparedness program, coping with methamphetamine abuse, and controlling skyrocketing healthcare costs.
This year’s notable conference speakers included U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Sen. Gorden Smith (R-Ore.) House Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) and former FEMA Director James Lee Witt.
Chertoff told NACo members that they have the most difficult job in America public life because they are the first line of defense when disaster — whether manmade or natural – strikes. He said federal, state and local governments must face those great challenges as partners. He said he had named a Preparedness Director to coordinate and strengthen those partnerships. The process includes developing self-assessments in all states to determine the capabilities of local governments to effectively cope with disasters and how the federal resources and expertise can help.
Chertoff said the challenges of the coming hurricane season, beginning June 1, could be extraordinary for the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. He said his department is working to coordinate communication systems across the nation, streamline logistics to deliver supplies to impacted areas, streamline debris removal activities by utilizing local contractors and become more engaged with citizens.
Secretary Mineta told NACo members that the new $286 billion transportation funding bill adopts “forward-looking” ideas and gives states and local governments more flexibility to use federal transportation dollars more effectively on local priorities. He said the legislation removes some obstacles that county officials and others have complained delayed much needed transportation projects in local communities.
“Transportation solutions are not going to come from Washington,” Mineta said. “They are going to come from the front lines where you sit. You, as local government officials, will be at the forefront of that transformation.”
Good & bad news
Senator Smith presented a good news, bad news message to NACo members. He said the U.S. economy has more than doubled since 1981 ($5.4 trillion to $12.6 trillion), unemployment remains low in most regions, and the nation’s Gross National Product has increased nearly 10 percent in the last 36 months.
“But there’s a cloud on the horizon, “Smith said. “In just 25 years, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – plus interest on the national debt – will consume 100 percent of federal revenues. This is a crushing weight on us.”
Nevertheless, the senator pledged his support to county governments.
During his remarks, Sen. Smith was wearing a SAVE CDBG button given to him by NACo President Bill Hansell, who also serves as a county commissioner (Umatilla County, Ore.) in the senator’s home state.
Smith serves on five major Senator Committees: Commerce, and Transportation, Energy and Natural Resources, Rules, Indian Affairs, and the powerful Finance Committee. He also chairs on the Special Committee on Aging. In addition, he is a member of the Senate Western Water and Rural Health Caucuses as well as the High Tech Task Force. Smith is also co-chairman of the Senate Task Force on Medicare and Prescription Drugs and has been selected by leadership three times to be a Deputy Whip, a position that he currently holds.
James Lee Witt, former FEMA Director, speaking before NACo’s Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee, told NACo members that it’s critical that counties have highly effective communication systems in place.
He pointed to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and said, “Better lines of communication among local, state, and federal officials would have saved more lives.”
Witt, chairman and CEO of James Lee Will Associates, said that FEMA should not be a part of the Department of Homeland Security. Rather, it should be an independent agency. He urged NACo members to support legislation to do just that.
Witt also encouraged NACo members to support increased investment in pre-disaster preparedness plans and to pre-disaster contracts in place at the county level for the removal debris because the costs would then be reimbursable from FEMA in many instances.
The abuse of methamphetamine is rapidly becoming a nationwide epidemic with devastating impacts on county governments. NACo is a national leader on this important issue. In fact, NACo has released four surveys to date on the impact of meth abuse on counties. Key findings of NACo’s research have shown that meth is the top drug threat to county law enforcement officials, the drug that most frequently drives people to county public hospital emergency rooms, responsible for an increase in out-of-home placements for children; and its need treatment is growing.
NACo’s Methamphetamine Action Group, which consists of 25 elected county officials, including sheriffs, public health officials, and chief information officers, heard from Dr. Tim Condon, Deputy Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse. He described why meth is addictive after only one use, and how it actually changes the chemical composition of the brain leading to numerous mental and physical deficiencies.
Independent filmmaker Matt Farnsworth showed the Meth Action Group a horrifying but informational unfinished documentary which tells the story of a meth-addicted family in his Iowa hometown. The film showed in graphic details the devastating impacts pf meth abuse on families and communities. Farnsworth plans to showcase the film in communities across the county when it is finished to prevent people from experimenting with meth.
A separate workshop shared information about how counties can work effectively to shut down meth lab sites and how they can recover financial assets to pay for the closure. It’s a costly endeavor, since cooking meth produces a significant amount of toxic waste that impacts the environment and affects public health in our communities.
During a presentation to the entire NACo membership, Tom Sieble, founder and chairman of the Montana Meth Project, discussed his highly successful public outreach and advertising program designed to prevent teenagers from experimenting with meth. The “Not Even Once” campaign, which was launched in 2005, targets 12- to 17-year-olds in Montana who have never tried the highly-addictive, brain-altering drug.
“The Montana Meth Project is effective because it’s peer-to-peer communication, “Sieble said. “Our ads are authentic and credible.”
He said his goal is to reduce the number of first-time meth users by one-third by next year. He urged NACo to continue its national leadership on this issue.
Preserving the federal CDBG program remains a high priority for NACo. County officials attended a workshop session entitled, “Saving CDBD: The Battle Continues.” They heard from staff leaders from the House Committee on Government Reform, as well as Norma Drummond, Deputy Commissioner, Westchester (N.Y.) County, and Marcia Sigal, Director of Community Development Agencies in Washington. The workshop spelled out the benefits of the program to counties and shared strategies to work together to protect the program from funding reductions or outright elimination.
One workshop, entitled, “County Link to National Health Information Technology Efforts,” discussed how counties are implementing health information technologies in their local health care delivery systems and are saving millions of dollars as a result. NACo members learned that the implementation of a nationwide electronic records network could net an annual savings of $81 billion, including $77 billion in saving from improved efficiency and $4 billion from reduced medical errors. The featured speaker at that session was Jodi Daniel Director/Office of Policy and Research, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Another workshop provided county officials with information about NACo’s Prescription Drug Discount Card Program, which is saving consumers millions of dollars. The program went nationwide last June and 270 counties around the nation have signed up so far. More than $4.5 million has been saved by program participants. The average saving per prescription is 19 percent; more than 400,000 prescriptions have been filled.
Another workshop featured Dr. J. Edward Hill, President of the American Medical Association, who spoke to NACo members about what counties can do to care for the uninsured without overtaxing county medical providers. He also discussed strategies for keeping Medicaid costs under control.
Another workshop discussed successful approaches to developing balanced county budgets. Many state and local governments have experienced budget shortfalls as a result of national and local economies’ unfunded mandates and rising employee health care costs. These challenges have put enormous pressure on county governments and the services they provide to their constituents.
A panel of experts – Margaret V. Browne, Director of Finance and Management, City and County of Denver, Colo.; LaQuita Carr, Financial Analyst, Wayne, County, Miss.; Marianna A. Marysheva, Assistant City Manager, Lynwood, Calif.; and Jeremy T. Wilmoth, Budget Administrator, Jackson County, Mo. – discussed creative ways in which local governments have balanced budgets through non-traditional revenue sources and innovative approaches to reducing costs.
The deadline for complying with the Help America Vote Act has passed and counties are in the midst of their first post-deadline primary election season. County officials heard from federal agency officials, who discussed key issues including the current rates of compliance among counties, the projected path for enforcement activities by the Department of Justice, and the adoption of new federal funding.
(Coconino County District 5 takes in portions of the Navajo and Hopi reservations.)