Less state money for mandates makes counties pay

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LANSING — Michigan is requiring Kent County to increase public health counseling with no additional state funding.

Ottawa County has just discovered it must begin reimbursing foster parents’ mileage under requirements from the Department of Human Services.

State funding for Marquette County’s senior services has dropped more than 20 percent since 2007, leaving these expenses for the county to cover.

Officials from Michigan counties say issues like these are created by unfunded or underfunded mandates — new services the state requires counties to perform without paying its share of the costs.

“This is a sore spot with local government throughout the state,” said Alan Vanderberg, Ottawa County administrator. “This is one that deals with the rule of law. Ottawa County hopes the administration will help make this a priority.”

The Headlee Amendment, passed in 1978, requires the state to give local governments funding when mandating new programs and prohibits the state from reducing its share of funding. In 2010, the Legislative Commission on Statutory Mandates confirmed the three state branches of government have failed to follow this amendment’s requirements.

A package of Senate bills designed to prevent more unfunded mandates was introduced in 2013 but stalled at the end of the session. The lead bill was sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba. The bills would have required legislators to consider the costs of mandates before voting on them. If bills passed without an estimate of county costs included, counties would not have to follow the mandate.

“Counties are the service-providing arms of the state,” said Scott Erbisch, Marquette County administrator. While counties deliver state services to Michigan’s population, counties face underfunding in many forms.

Michigan’s Public Health Code requires the state to provide 50 percent of funding for mandated services. Vanderberg said Ottawa County is receiving only 21 percent of its public health costs from the state, forcing the county to fund the extra $850,000 for state-mandated services from county health clinics to sewage management.

Vanderberg and Ottawa County’s court administrator, Kevin Bowling, are currently looking into a mandate from the Department of Human Services. Vanderberg said DHS has recently requested the county to fund reimbursements for foster parents’ mileage. The county was previously unaware of this mandate and isn’t sure how much it will cost.

According to the DHS, it has always shared the responsibility of reimbursing foster parents with counties. Bob Wheaton, DHS manager of communications, said in a voicemail message that the department funds 50 percent of each county’s reimbursements. DHS has recently included this in its foster parent agency contract, creating an increase in reimbursement requests for counties, and explaining why counties may think this is a new mandate.

Law also requires the state to fund 50 percent of Essential Local Public Health Services. According to Daryl Delabbio, Kent County administrator and controller, the state funded only 33 percent of the county’s costs in 2013. Over the past two years, the state has increased funding to cover 41.5 percent of costs. Kent County is still underfunded this year by 8.5 percent, or $326,248, Delabbio said.

Kent County is also funding a new public health mandate from the state. Previously, parents opposed to vaccinations needed a waiver from the state before their children could attend school. Now, the state has mandated that counties provide these parents a counseling session with a public health nurse before granting them a waiver.

According to Delabbio, the mandate is a public health improvement, but because the state will not reimburse Kent County for the service, it creates another unfunded service for the county.

Casperson said while most mandates have honorable intentions and are popular, they create burdens for counties. For instance, in 2013, lawmakers voted to exempt disabled veterans from paying property taxes. Casperson agreed this exemption was honorable but said the cost to counties — which lose this property tax revenue — should have been assessed.

Several interest groups and lawmakers are working to address unfunded and underfunded mandates. The issue is a top priority for the Michigan Association of Counties, which has been supporting legislative changes since 2010.

The package of bills to address the issue failed in the last session because some lawmakers argued that costing out each mandate would slow the legislative process. Casperson said he “absolutely will reintroduce” the bills and work to overcome those concerns.

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