Counties squeezed by Pa. budget standoff

Annette Mercado, director of day care, plays at Kid-Doodles Learning Center in Ambler, where some children are state-subsidized. Montgomery County has approved funding for such centers. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer)

Across Pennsylvania, county governments are finding themselves on the hook to keep state-funded local services - from transportation for the disabled to day care - running during Harrisburg's budget stalemate.

For fiscally secure counties, including Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks, this has meant reaching into cash reserves for millions of dollars each month in emergency spending.

Amanda Schok, owner of the Kid-Doodles Learning Center in Ambler, wept with joy last week when Montgomery County commissioners approved spending $5.5 million per month to pay for services like hers, where 23 of the 55 children enrolled are state-subsidized.

"We were looking at laying off staff," Schok said, "and we were looking at turning people away."

In counties with shallower pockets, the harder calls are being made to ensure that social services are not interrupted. Most state spending halted July 1, when the budget expired. Harrisburg has been unable to agree on a new plan.

Some of Delaware County's social-services bills are going unpaid until the state funding comes in.

In Western Pennsylvania, Mercer County employees were forced into weeklong furloughs this month. And Greene County has laid off some workers and borrowed money.

"We have no choice but to continue the programs," said Pam Snyder, Greene County commissioners chairwoman, "and yet the state has a choice not to pay their bills. I've got to tell you, right now I feel like I've been hit by a Mack truck."

Although most of Philadelphia's surrounding counties have enough cash to get through a short-term drought of state money for social services, officials in each remain uneasy about how long they will be asked to spend down the reserves.

"If push came to shove, we probably would be able to do it until the latter part of this year," said Charles H. Martin, Bucks County commissioners chairman, "but then after that, we would really be putting our own funds in peril."

Chester County officials will evaluate in early September whether to continue emergency spending. Covering July's state expenses cost $4 million, and the county's reserve fund is $16.2 million.

Montgomery County Commissioners Chairman James R. Matthews has said he expected the state budget stalemate to last into October. That would push the emergency spending uncomfortably close to budgeting time, when counties are expected to have a savings of at least 10 percent of their budgets to satisfy credit agencies.

But while some large, suburban counties can fret over losing out on the interest money their savings-account millions would have accrued - which probably will not be reimbursed - counties elsewhere say their problems are more dire.

Delaware County has kept services going by performing triage and giving priority to businesses that would be threatened by postponements.

"It isn't a matter of nothing being paid. However, there are some bills that are not being paid at this time," said William Lovejoy, Delaware County spokesman. "We don't have that big cash reserve like Montgomery County."

Elsewhere, service cutbacks and other strong measures are on the table.

Counties are generally loath to impose temporary reductions in social services, fearing such effects as a low-income parent's quitting a job to take care of a child whose day-care subsidy disappeared.

But other potent measures have already been imposed. In Mercer County, where 43 workers went on unpaid furlough last week and 35 more face it soon, an across-the-board pay cut is underway and stopping pay for some service providers is being discussed.

"We will do what it takes to keep this county government up and operational," Commissioners Chairman Brian Beader said.

And in Greene County, where the reserve fund is just $1.5 million, officials have taken out a $1.2 million line of credit at a local bank and begun layoffs and discussions of which services might have to go.

"They are pushing this down to the counties," said Pam Snyder, the commissioners chairwoman, "and we're not going to have a choice."


Contact staff writer Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or