Don’t blame the more than 2,400 county officials gathered in Fort Worth this weekend if they seem a bit weary, or worried.They’ve had a lot to worry about. At the same time, leaders of the National Association of Counties say the focus of the group’s four-day meeting at the Fort Worth Convention Center is to help them get ahead of the game, to take on those worries with a good offense rather than constantly being on defense.Some of the problems faced by leaders of the 3,069 counties from Maine to Hawaii and Alaska to Florida:• Money — Well, that’s pretty much what it all boils down to, isn’t it? If the economy were better and money wasn’t so scarce, wouldn’t a lot of problems go away?Still, NACo leaders in town for the association’s annual conference say the difficulties go beyond a weak economy. For one thing, the federal focus on driving down deficits and debt has brought some ill-conceived ideas for federal solutions.One of those ideas is to increase federal tax revenue by limiting or removing the tax-exempt status of municipal bond interest (don’t let the word municipal fool you — they’re talking about all state and local government bonds). A NACo study showed that $193.4 billion in such bonds were issued for infrastructure projects in Texas in the 10-year period from 2003 through 2012. The proposed limit on tax-exempt interest would cause Texans to pay an extra $20.3 billion in finance costs on those bonds, and outright repeal of the tax break would drive up costs by $58 billion, NACo says.“It’s another way of saying ‘unfunded mandate,’” says Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a former NACo president.• Healthcare — Counties not only must pay healthcare benefits in order to attract and retain employees, but those in 37 states including Texas must make public healthcare available to local residents who qualify for Medicaid.The JPS Health Network fulfills that requirement in Tarrant County.The cost of healthcare is a national problem, and counties are in the thick of it. The solutions prescribed by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are expected to drive up costs for counties.• Jails and criminal justice — Counties run jails and local court systems. Prisoners must be housed and fed, judges and bailiffs must be paid, and county money pays the cost of defense attorneys for defendants who can’t afford it themselves.Some smart initiatives in Tarrant County will be highlighted during the NACo conference to show other officials how they might be able to operate their justice systems more efficiently. Consultations between judges, prosecutors, defense attoreys and others here have found ways to move many defendants through the systems more quickly, saving jail and court costs.• Transportation — Finding ways to finance transportation projects is a problem everywhere, says Maui County (yes, Hawaii) council member Riki Hokama, NACo’s second vice president (which means his turn as president is coming up in another year). Congress has a penchant for putting off adopting a long-term transportation bill, operating instead on a series of continuing resolutions. That makes planning road and transit and airport projects harder.Still, solutions to problems in one county don’t necessarily address similar issues in another. They’re a varied group.“If you’ve seen one county,” says NACo’s outgoing president, Chris Rodgers, a commissioner in Douglas County, Neb., “you’ve seen one county.”Through Monday, county officials and employees from across the nation will attend workshops and discussion sessions looking for answers. They’ll tour the new 444-bed Lon Evans Correction Center downtown. They’ll hit some restaurants and might even party a little bit.And maybe when they go back home, they’ll apply some newfound solutions to their most worrisome problems.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9